In praise of Timberwolves Failure & thoughts on the ’22-23 regular season that was

“Failure…is a Dantesque, circular affair. Just as the grain of wheat has to pass through the millstones if it is to turn into something more refined, so we have to go through several circles of failure, each one of which will shake us properly and leave us badly wounded, but also make us a little sharper. All that pressing and grinding will not be in vain.”

The Timberwolves made the playoffs.

It was not easy and it was often quite stressful. They merely earned the eighth and final seed, pitting them against the twice-reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the top-seeded Denver Nuggets. They will be heavy underdogs. But after a season of twists and turns and ups and downs, they prevailed in the second of two play-in chances, and earned the right to postseason play.

That intro passage above comes from ‘In Praise of Failure,’ a recently published book by Costica Bradatan. Broken into four general types of failure (physical/health; political; social; death/existential) Bradatan’s book tells the stories of famous people (of his chosen subjects, Gandhi is the best known) who embraced failure and even suffering in ways that ultimately benefited their cause, or at least their perspective. I’m not sure why I decided to read it, other than that the NYT review made it seem unique and interesting. As so much of human life becomes practically or technologically “easier,” I find it worth visiting and revisiting why that ease fails to deliver any collective sense of elevated well-being. Bradatan’s book itself explores exceptionally radical examples of pain and suffering to highlight the importance and benefits of humility. If a person has suffered, or a people have suffered, that can be and often is a first step toward a special sort of enlightenment. His subjects were unique in how they sought out or even yearned for suffering, which is certainly not the common experience of the less fortunate. Anyway, it’s a pretty interesting book.

In a slightly less serious context, the themes of ‘In Praise of Failure’ translate nicely to the experience of Minnesota Timberwolves fandom. This is a fanbase that knows failure and suffering like the back of its hand. Younger fans probably think most about Jimmy Butler demanding a trade after the bright phase of Wiggins-LaVine-Towns Promise was dented and ultimately demolished. They think about trading away Andrew Wiggins and a first round pick for D’Angelo Russell, only to see D’Lo struggle here, Wiggins become an All-Star and champion there, and the barely-protected first become a high and valuable one. They think about Karl-Anthony Towns going from clear-cut franchise savior and most coveted young player in basketball, to someone frequently derided by critics national and local (*raises hand*) and whose future as a Timberwolf is in greater doubt than ever. And of course, most recently, they think about new POBO Tim Connelly’s decision to trade effectively five first round draft picks (four actual picks in the future + just-drafted Walker Kessler) and some playable rotation players for Rudy Gobert. They can’t stop thinking about the Gobert Trade because Bill Simmons Will. Not. Let. Them.

As someone old enough to remember the entire franchise history, it’s crazy to think that there are high-school-age Wolves fans out there already bearing enough scar tissue to basically “get it.” It’s so much more than 2018 to 2023, however, and to get into all of the bad lottery luck, bad lottery-pick decisions, bad coaches, bad players, illegal contracts, knuckle push-ups, ACL’s, and David Kahn would be too many words for a blog post. Maybe it’s a book I’ll write someday.

Nevertheless, the Wolves beat the Thunder on Friday night at Target Center, they’re in the playoffs, and that is an accomplishment that we here do not take for granted. They won Game 84 decisively, affording fans most of the 4th Quarter to soak it in, decompress, and channel their humbled perspective into a joy that perhaps no other team’s supporters could muster from 42 wins and an 8 seed.

As the great Tom Thibodeau used to say, “The playoffs are different.” With that qualitative divider placed between what’s happened and what’s about to come, here are a handful of observations about this past regular season performance.

Chris Finch

Head coaching performance in NBA basketball is often difficult to measure. The dynamics of the league and the game are such that star-level talent will almost always trump any subtle strategic advantages that one set of players receives from their coach that the opponent does not. Behind the scenes practice and preparation is largely invisible. The league’s playing rules are restrictive, with the very-wide lane limiting where both offensive and defensive players are allowed to stand. Ultimately, and maybe even “unfortunately,” it becomes a “copycat league,” with most teams running similar sets and plays, and very similar responses to those plays on defense. Wolves fans who listen to the great Dane Moore Podcast have become acquainted with defensive terms “high wall,” and “drop” to describe how pick and rolls are countered. That there is an “either/or” approach to defensive strategy — rather than “endless possibilities” — is kind of what I mean. I’m digressing here.

When Chris Finch replaced Ryan Saunders in the middle of the 2020-21 season, the impact was positive and it was immediate. That moment of coaching change is one where measurements are most easily made. We saw this incredibly starkly when Rick Adelman replaced Kurt Rambis, too. Whether it is tactical, motivational, or just sharper attention to detail and greater expectations, some coaches are better than others, even in the NBA where coaching doesn’t always seem to matter very much. Britt Robson is the foremost authority on Timberwolves History, and he often repeats that Finch’s coaching performance last season was the finest the team’s ever had. I can’t disagree with the take, even if there are other contenders. (Flip’s in 2004; Musselman’s two seasons at franchise inception; Adelman’s wholesale culture change in 2011.)

With all of that said, Finch took a step backward this year. This is for two basic reasons: (1) the very high number of inexcusable losses that spoiled the team’s chances at a high playoff seed; and (2) the offense.

The first one is simple. The Detroit Pistons were the worst team in the league this year, winning only 17 times. Two of those came against the Wolves. The Spurs were the next worst, and they also beat the Wolves twice. The Rockets for a long stretch were the joke of the league. When they beat the Wolves on January 23rd, it snapped their 13-game losing streak. The Hornets were the second-worst team in the East, but managed to sweep their two matchups with the Wolves. The Magic and Wizards were comfortably outside the playoff picture in the East. Orlando took 1 of 2 from the Wolves while Washington swept em. And of course, most recently, the Wolves lost Game 79 to a Portland Trail Blazers team that was outright tanking, in one of the biggest betting-line upsets in modern history. Nobody can reasonably say the Wolves should’ve won all 11 of those games — even great teams lay the occasional egg — but that is an outsized number of flops. Had they dropped merely 8 of them, the Wolves would’ve tied the Suns for the 4th best record in the West. Had they done better and only lost 2 of those 11, they’d have tied Memphis for the 2-seed.

Those inexcusable, baffling performances against the bottom feeders — many of whom were outright tanking for Victor Wembanyama hopes — is an unfortunate headline to the 2022-23 Timberwolves season. Fair or not, that is the sort of thing that falls on the coach as basic accountability.

The second one is a little stranger and some may take issue with it, or at least my description of it. The offense. The ’22-23 Wolves scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranked them 23rd among all 30 teams. That’s not very good, and certainly not good enough to think about competing for a championship, which was the preseason hope with this juiced-up roster. For reference, the three teams just ahead of them in O-rankings were the Wizards, Pacers, and Pelicans, none of which made the playoffs.

The natural defense against blaming Finch for offensive struggles would be to point out KAT’s extended absence. Nursing his calf injury, Towns missed 53 games. He’s the team’s best offensive player, so maybe the scoring struggles were as simple as missing Towns?

Not really. In KAT’s 957 minutes on the floor this year, the Wolves scored worse than when he was off of it. His 111.2 offensive rating would stack up as the 26th ranked amongst the 30 teams. Interestingly, the Wolves defense was quite a bit better during Towns minutes, reversing a trend and contradicting his reputation to some extent. The Towns absence does not explain the offensive struggles.

To my eye, what drove this was a severe lack of structure that for certain lineups was desperately needed. Before the D’Angelo Russell/Mike Conley trade, the lack of structure invited far too many careless turnovers. Backcourt mistakes leading to opponent dunks and layups was far too much of a Timberwolves staple for the first half of this season.

That trade was a winner, however, and Conley has single-handedly brought a maturity to the Wolves’ offense that was absent before his arrival. But there is still another major issue with this team’s offensive approach, and it rears its head during the minutes that Towns and Gobert share the floor together. As a tandem they represent the defining quality to Tim Connelly’s all-in move to push this team to title contention. As a tandem on the floor in Season 1, they scored just 106.2 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets, at 108.4, had the worst offense in the league. In his preseason interview with Robson for MinnPost, Chris Finch sounded confident about all things offense, saying “I think offensively we have a pretty good idea of how it is going to fit together; we just have to go through the mechanics of it.” Regarding KAT’s adjustment ahead, he noted that with Rudy as a new lob threat on the interior, “KAT is going to be the one that has to move and play at different spots on the floor.” Bigger picture, regarding the Twin Towers concept, Finch said boldly, “Our commitment to the Rudy trade is we are not going to allow teams to play our players off the floor. We have to be smart enough to figure it out. A lot of that is, are you able to punish your opponent at the other end of the floor (when the Wolves are on offense)? And we think we can.”

The inaugural season of Twin Towers was, on the offensive side of the floor, a spectacular failure. By Finch’s own stated standard, they were not smart enough to figure it out.

Kyle Anderson

In a season of unusual Western Conference parity, the Timberwolves roster likewise had a high number of (at times, at least) integral parts, without a clear-cut or “by far” MVP. The net rating range amongst regular rotation players spans from Naz Reid’s (-4.2) at the bottom, to Kyle Anderson’s (+2.3) at the top. That is pretty narrow, lacking any clear outliers in either direction. Regular Wolves-game viewers are not surprised by Slow Mo leading the way in this department, as for loooong stretches of the season he seemed to be as vital to team success as anyone on the team; including All-Star Anthony Edwards and including max-contract vets Towns and Gobert.

Anderson’s relative importance was a byproduct of the “no structure” that hindered things with D’Lo and Ant turning the ball over, and with Towns and Gobert unable to figure out a workable chemistry. His nickname speaks for itself — Anderson operates incredibly slowly — but without fail he gets to where he wants to get with the basketball. He’s got a point guard’s handle and court awareness. At 6’9″ with a deft touch, he’s able to finish all sorts of funky shots around the basket. While he lacks the explosive burst to score against a keyed-in interior defender (really the only thing keeping him from being an All-Star) he’s got an innate sense of whether to flick the floater up high to Rudy, kick it out to a shooter for three, or – worst case – attempt the floater and get back on defense.

When Anderson shared the floor with Gobert, over a large sampling of 1,088 minutes, the Wolves tended to dominate. They scored better (115.3) and they defended ridiculously well, allowing just 108.2 points per 100. (Cleveland had the best D-rating this year at 109.9.) Anderson’s long armed ball thefts were about as impressive as his slow-mo, Euro-stepping playmaking was on the other end. Paired with KAT, Anderson lineups were likewise competitive, albeit more offensive oriented. (117.6 offense, 114.1 defense, +3.5 net, in 346 minutes.)

This guy is so good and was so integral to team success that they have to at least partially rethink how their front line looks, going forward. Connelly and Finch need to embrace this as a positive blessing, and try to forget about any awkwardness that might arise from moving partially or entirely off of the Twin Towers concept.

Towns, Gobert, and Towns & Gobert

I don’t have the time I used to have for writing posts like this one, which inevitably shifts the “takes” away from the measured world of complete sentences and paragraphs, and toward the volatile landscape that is Twitter. Unable to attend many games and sit in press row like I used to for damn-near every single home game, it’s fun to maintain the online connection to Wolves fans and pundits while continuing to develop and share whatever thoughts I have about the team.

This has led to a rash of knee-jerk reactions over the past year when I personally had especially high hopes and expectations for the team that Connelly assembled, and the performance out of the gates was alarmingly bad. (A full chronological recap of the 2022-23 Timberwolves would flesh out how dire things seemed in those early days before the Towns injury, when they often trailed average or worse opponents by 20+ in the first half.) Tweeting is fun, but sometimes reckless, and I know I’ve fired off several iterations of “They need to either trade Towns or fire Finch.”

That sentiment might have some merit to it, but there are reasons for patience that a few deep breaths and WordPress can process better than overheated Twitter fingers during a fourth quarter meltdown.

A few basic reasons to keep the faith in Twin Towers that Finch-Connelly had last November:

First, the defense seems to be good and possibly great. Sometimes they struggle to get back in transition (especially after stagnant or sloppy offensive sets) but the stats are consistently favorable and the eye test usually lines up to say that Towns and Gobert, together, can anchor a bigtime NBA defense.

Second, despite his outward confidence before the season, Finch had and has had some excuses for not getting things figured out with KAT and Rudy as a cohesive pairing. Towns missed a large chunk of training camp with an illness. Once training camp ends, practices come in short supply. Then of course he had the calf injury, knocking him out of everything for the middle two thirds of the season. It isn’t realistic to spark sudden chemistry that wasn’t there in the first place, while trying desperately to win as many games as possible to sneak into the playoffs. Basically, it might still be possible to figure out how to score efficiently with Twin Towers, but they will need time and some different ideas.

Third, as mentioned above, Kyle Anderson has been an absolute revelation and they can stagger KAT and Rudy for most of a game while Kyle plays the four spot. Even if simultaneous Twin Towers chemistry never totally materializes, the Wolves could have an elite overall frontcourt situation if managed with heavy staggering and Slow Mo 6th Man minutes.

Fourth and finally, as we saw this year with the Towns injury, each tower is an insurance policy against the other’s health. This team can win with only Rudy and — as it showed in the pivotal 2nd Half vs NOLA in Game 82 — it can win with only KAT. In a league that’s trended heavily toward load management and paid-time-off resting of key players, it would be luxurious to be able to do planned rest for both Rudy and KAT in some regular season games, and still have every expectation of getting the W.

At the end of the day, with a cooler head, I think the Wolves should be open to trading either center if an enticing opportunity presents itself. Connelly might do well to even explore it a little bit, proactively. But trading one just for the sake of abandoning Twin Towers might be a mistake. The defensive numbers paired with some plausible excuses for the to-date offensive struggles are cause for some level of patience with the project.

(Just don’t ask for my take if the Wolves are down double digits in the 2nd Half of Game 1.)

Ant, Jaden, and The Chris Finch Reality

Recent events have buried the lede of the Timberwolves 2022-23 Story. These include Karl’s dramatic return from injury, the Gobert-Anderson sideline scuffle, Jaden’s unfortunate loss of temper and resulting hand fracture, and Ant’s decreased production while adjusting to a shoulder injury.

The big-picture takeaway from the 2022-23 Timberwolves season was that the youthful half of their roster core made a large step forward toward eventual stardom. In the case of Anthony Edwards, that meant an actual All-Star Game appearance. In the case of Jaden McDaniels, it meant incremental-but-important progress as an offensive player, and increasing national recognition as one of the elite defenders in the entire NBA.

With Towns on the shelf for much of the season, Ant stepped up to fill the scoring void. He had career highs in points per game (24.6), rebounds per game (5.8), assists per game (4.4), steals per game (1.6), blocks per game (0.7), field goal percentage (45.9), and three-point percentage (36.9). His defense improved, and national pundits have taken notice that Edwards on the ball is one of the tougher stoppers around. Ant still has areas to improve — turnovers and careless decision-making atop the list — but his progress continues to be steady, and he is one of the very brightest young stars in the world. He’s still only 21 years old, the age of most college juniors.

Jaden McDaniels likewise posted several career highs: 12.1 points; 51.7 FG%; 39.8 3P%; 1.9 assists. Offensively, McDaniels grew comfortable in late shot-clock situations, attacking off the dribble and converting short fadeaways and other improvisational shots around the basket. Offense will never be his primary calling card, but McDaniels is making his coach look wise and prescient for heaping so much praise on him when he first took over the job as Wolves coach. Defensively, Jaden still fouls too much — the direct impetus for his wall punch, the other day, in fact — and that will need to be gradually figured out with more experience and more physical strength to avoid pushing too much with his arms when he’s out of perfect position. But his defense is truly exceptional and it is always faced up to the league’s best players. He is a foundational piece whose position, playing style, and personality seem just perfectly meshed to sidekick Anthony Edwards for the long haul.

This once again brings up Chris Finch. As much as those bad losses were a legitimate source of frustration and as much as the offense will need to have more direction if Twin Towers is to ever work, the Wolves cannot change coaches right now; not with the steady progress of the two most important young players on the team, and not with Edwards specifically going out of his way at any opportunity to credit Finch for anything that might have gone well.

The Rudy Gobert Trade has caused a lot of NBA pundit brains to break, with an overwhelming compulsion to repeat over and over again how it is going to be one of the worst in league history. For that to be true, though, it would have to leave the Timberwolves in a bad spot. For the Wolves to end up in a bad spot, it is almost certainly necessary that things did not work out with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. As long as they keep progressing into their mid-20s at anything close to the pace they’ve been progressing under Chris Finch, the Wolves are going to be just fine. Ant just made the All-Star Team at 21, and Jaden will at least be strongly considered for All-Defense at 22. The Wolves will sign each player to 4 or 5 year extensions that don’t take effect until after next season. This is essentially a conceptual mulligan on where things seemed to stand with Wiggins/LaVine/Towns in their earliest years, when optimism ran high.

Despite the unique dynamics that the trade created, with reasonable expectations to win now, Finch’s fate should always be tied more directly to Ant and Jaden, and their ascendance into a championship foundation. Twin Towers is a roster and x’s and o’s feature of the present and perhaps the foreseeable future, but it is not the top priority. Where it matters most, Finch has seemed to do his job and do it well.


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Better Timberwolves in the New Year

When I last wrote anything in this space, the Wolves were almost at their season nadir. They were 16-20, and just a couple hours away from losing to the lowly Detroit Pistons on the Target Center floor. Despite that set of circumstances, which included several key injuries including the significant one to their lone 2021-22 All-NBA’er, I was feeling hopeful that better things were coming. My four listed reasons for Hope in the New Year were: (1) Chris Finch’s offense had not yet taken shape, and improvement with better chemistry seemed more likely than not; (2) Much of their recent struggles before that blog post were attributable to injuries; (3) The Western Conference was unusually weak, especially at the top, such that just getting into the playoffs would make for a real chance at a run; and (4) The youth and untapped potential within the roster — specifically with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels — is reason to not fret excessively over the draft-pick cost of acquiring Rudy Gobert. The future is bright as long as those two thrive.

Since the Detroit Debacle that followed that post on New Year’s Eve, the Wolves have won 10 times and lost only 4. Several of those wins came against strong opposition, like the Nuggets, Cavaliers, and Grizzlies. In fact, had the Wolves not lost two completely unacceptable games in this stretch — a *second* loss to the Pistons, and another to the even-worse Houston Rockets — they’d have won damn-near every game they played since I wrote that stuff about hope. Their other two losses over these 14 games were back-to-back; a 1-point loss in Utah when Jaden McDaniels missed too many minutes with foul trouble, and a narrow defeat at Denver when then Wolves led most of the game, but Nikola Jokic made just enough plays down the stretch against a KAT-less AND Rudy-less Wolves front line to eek out a win.

Let’s briefly unpack those #FourFactors I last wrote about, and see how each is coming along.

There is statistical and visual evidence that Finch’s offense is finding its way. Over the 14 games since January 1, the Wolves have an offensive rating of 116.2. That number would rank 5th among all teams in the league. In the 37 games before January 1, that number was 111.8. That number would rank 24th among all teams. The improvement is pretty stark. The basic stats over this stretch, with a few red circles to highlight some of the contributing factors to the recent success:

We’ll use that left “games played” column to step ahead to that second reason for hope; that the struggles of December were in large part due to injuries. Ant and Jaden always play, and KAT’s injury has been ongoing/long-term, so those aren’t really what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is the return of Taurean Prince (who happens to be out again, with an ankle sprain, but his return was clearly a big boost, and hopefully he’ll be back again soon) and also consistent presence of Kyle Anderson, who had missed most of the games in that long losing streak before the new year. This team has decent depth, but it cannot reasonably expect to win many games if it’s missing all of Towns, Prince, and Anderson, as was the case there for a while. Prince brings consistent effort and attention, catch-and-shoot offense, and “I don’t just hand the ball to the other team sometimes” fundamentals that are often a salve for this team’s worse woes. Kyle is becoming one of the team’s top players overall — more on that later. Having better health has begotten better team results. Logical, right?

Third, the shape of the Western Conference. Let’s look under the hood for a minute:

What stands out is the parity. Never – in my memory anyway – has the West been so top-to-(almost)-bottom even. The Nuggets are separating themselves at the top, to be clear. Memphis will get Desmond Bane back, and be very good, too. But, again like I was saying last time, neither of those teams is a multiple superstar heavyweight that ordinarily enters an NBA Playoffs as a clear-cut title favorite. Classic NBA usually has a team or three with two or three clear-cut Hall of Famers in their primes. Your Splash Brothers Warriors, your LeBron-in-Miami Big 3, your LeBron in Cleveland the second time around Big 3, your KG-Celtics Big 3, your Kobe & Shaq, your Kobe & Pau, your Duncan/Parker/Ginobili, etc etc. That team just doesn’t exist in this year’s West; not unless Jamal Murray is going to be That Guy, or the Clippers actually get serious, or the Warriors can find their old gear one more time. Those are all big questions. There’s no reason that a team like the Timberwolves, playing so well with so many high-level talents, cannot beat any Western Conference team in a playoff series. That’s a fun thing to think and type.

Finally, Ant and Jaden as the source of long-term improvement and championship potential, and the benefits of developing each in a winning context. Edwards continues to evolve. His scoring gradually goes up and his defense usually gets a little better each month. This season he’s added a consistent transition drive game to his arsenal, a must-have for athletic freaks of his type. He not only recognizes when it’s there, but has nearly mastered the Euro-step footwork cadence to set up easy scores against a sole back-pedaling defender. In the halfcourt, he makes too many turnovers, but they are increasingly ones of aggression versus pointless carelessness. He attacks tight spaces off the dribble with a better feel for when to secure the ball and burst through, versus trying to keep his dribble alive when there’s no hope for that. He’s become a legitimate NBA star by age 21.

Jaden is not yet a star, but likewise continues to improve. His defense is next to Rudy’s for best on the team. He sometimes puts the best scorers in the league in absolute jail with his length and lateral quickness. When he can avoid fouls, he’s incredibly valuable. He’s not afraid of big moments, evidenced by those dagger jumpers he hit over the Pelicans the other night. He’s a hair behind Kyle Anderson for the best net rating among regular rotation players. He’s a wonderful long-term sidekick to Edwards, who is more comfortable dominating offensive possessions than defensive ones. They also seem to get along as teammates pretty well:

Five (5) Wolves miscellaneous thoughts while I’m at the wheel here:

(1) Luka Garza is currently out of the rotation, mostly because Rudy Gobert exists, but also because Naz Reid and Nathan Knight exist, and all three are playing good basketball. As that graphic above shows, however, Garza has played in several of these recent Wolves games, including some of the better ones. I’m new to the Garza Experience, since I don’t watch college ball anymore and never saw him at Iowa. (Apparently he was like the best player in the country for one and maybe even two seasons.) From the little I’ve been able to see, I feel like this guy is legit good and might have the potential to be an impact starter for a long time. He’s reasonably big, plays his ass off, has a great feel for making quick and sensible ball decisions (shoots if open, always, otherwise finds a dribble hand-off or safe pass), and has a ridiculously pure jumper that extends out to NBA three-point range. He’s logged just 131 minutes this season, but per 36 he’s scoring 25.0 points on 52% shooting. He’s a restricted free agent this summer as long as Connelly extends him the qualifying offer. Naz is unrestricted and will be departing — hard to see that going any other way, given the salaries being paid for centers. Garza’s ability to defend without fouling will be what dictates his future more than anything else (6.6 fouls per 36, this season), but that’s learned behavior. He can figure that out, to some extent. I really hope they keep this guy, because I think he might already been quite good and he’s barely gotten a chance to show it in real NBA action.

(2) It’s hard to measure most NBA coaching jobs for the simple fact that it’s a player’s league; not a coach’s. It’s sometimes clear when a coach is great or terrible, but it’s usually shades of medium grey. Last season, Finch was pretty clearly doing a good job. That team outkicked its talent-level coverage. Early this season, when everybody was healthy, Finch was pretty clearly not going such a great job. They failed to even eclipse .500 in the 21 games they had Towns. In this last month, it’s starting to seem that Finch is getting through to this team again, and the performance follows. As mentioned above, the offense is hitting its stride. There is better offensive chemistry. D’Angelo Russell is playing his best basketball of late, and that comes amid non-stop trade rumors. Managing off-court noise and the motivations of uber-wealthy stars is a big part of the NBA coach’s job, and this Wolves team has survived a lot of national pundit ridicule while figuring out how these pieces fit together. All of this is to say that Finch seems like a good coach again. Maybe this paragraph is more for me than for readers, as I’ve taken to snap kneejerk reactions to the worst losses, and find myself blaming the coach more than is reasonable. Onto the next thought…

(3) Another one about Finch, but specifically the feelings that one Anthony Edwards expresses about their relationship.

This basic dynamic of “the star letting the coach coach him hard” is the one that guided the San Antonio Spurs through the Duncan and Pop Era. There’s a question of how harsh Finch really is behind the scenes. Not that he needs to be a total spaz, but my sense from everything I’ve seen and heard about Pop is that for years he’s gotten by with college-style tactics primarily because Timmy let him. The rewards were obviously plentiful. Whatever it looks like, exactly, a high level star & coach bond is a HUGE thing for a team in the Wolves’ position. As long as there are tangible signs of production and progress in the games, Finch will rightfully have a secure hold on his job here, with Ant’s endorsement.

(4) Kyle Anderson is better than I ever could’ve imagined. His long-armed thievery of the basketball is unlike anything I’ve witnessed of a Wolves defender. He had a great one last night to close out the Grizzlies:

Offensively, he functions as a glue between Ant’s dynamic stuff and Rudy’s dunk-everything stuff. Apparently he’s assisting more than ever, with this Wolves team:

Among regular rotation players, Anderson has the best net rating. Group together a bunch of iterations of “Wolves Starter X + Kyle Anderson” in lineups and you’ll typically find significantly positive numbers.

I’m not sure what else to say, other than that he’s been this teams second most valuable player for the season as a whole, behind Edwards. If they didn’t have Kyle Anderson, I’m comfortable saying this would not be a playoff team.

(5) This one is just re-posting a tweet that got people up in their feelings, when it shouldn’t have. If Towns comes back, they can’t afford to mess up the Kyle Anderson-at-the-4 chemistry that’s basically unlocked everything good about this year’s team. Since it got people tweeting I guess I should at least share it for the WordPress-only audience out there. Enjoy the tweet, and Go Wolves!

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Reasons for hope in the new Timberwolves year

The Timberwolves just lost their fifth straight game. At 16 wins and 20 losses, they stand alone in 11th place in the Western Conference. If the season ended right now, they would not even make the 7-through-10 Seed Play-In Tournament. No, they’d be firmly in the draft lottery. Oh, and about that: the Wolves’ 2023 1st Round Pick belongs to the Utah Jazz. So does their 2025 1st Round Pick. And their 2027 1st Round Pick. And, unless it falls in the Top 5, so does their 2029 1st Round Pick. The gamble that new President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly made in trading so much future draft equity for Rudy Gobert is being mocked by national NBA pundits. The local fan base and Timberwolves Twitter community have the pitchforks out.

This constellation of badness arrives right as the year turns over from 2022 to 2023. What better time than New Year’s Eve than to spin this around and consider what reasons remain for hope and maybe even a degree of optimism. In certain respects, the prevailing view is difficult or even impossible to rebut. Some things are truly bad with the Timberwolves and might be unfixable. But some other things are or might become quite good, in both the short and long term. Let’s consider some of them here.

  • Reason #1 for Timberwolves Hope: The offense is nowhere close to fully formed.

The Wolves are currently ranked 19th out of 30 teams in offensive rating – points scored per 100 possessions. For a team that employs Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert (Yes, Rudy Gobert), and some offense-first bench scorers, this is unacceptable. If you’ve been watching most of these games, it is not hard to detect a lack of cohesiveness that, at its worst moments, looks like a group that simply did not practice any offensive sets. So many possessions take half of the 24 allocated seconds to attempt any type of action, and so many possessions end with a 1-on-at-least-1 isolation scoring attempt. Gobert, a pick-and-roll monster over several All-Star seasons in Utah, has not been a seamless fit; on the contrary, his PnR attempts are more sparse than expected and he holds the worst offensive rating amongst regular rotation players. When Rudy sets a ball screen for Edwards, Ant almost never bothers to use it. That’s a base set that absolutely must become a staple. Thus far, it hasn’t.

The team has a turnovers problem, too. Especially in the backcourt, and especially with the most heavily-involved ballhandlers. Ant’s 3.3 turnovers per game ranks 17th in the NBA. Of the 16 players turning the ball over more times than Ant does, only 2 of them average fewer than Ant’s 4.4 assists. (Joel Embiid and Jordan Poole, each of whom averaged 4.3 assists per.) Most players turning the ball over more than 3 times are also assisting 5 to 10 times. D’Angelo Russell is a perennial “bad turnover guy.” His backcourt turnovers involve a toxic blend of “not doing anything aggressive when the ball is coughed up,” and “oh shit, he just fed an immediate 1 on 0 or 2 on 1 fast break the other direction.” His pick-6 pass to Zion the other night was a classic example.

Okay, somewhere there was supposed to be some hope in all of this. Here it is: the Wolves offensive woes have been much more a product of poor chemistry and poor x’s and o’s than they have been a product of insufficient talent. Edwards, despite the high turnovers, continues to ascend into stardom. (He’s going to be right on the fringe of making this year’s All-Star Team, if he keeps producing like he has been.) If they could sharpen up their halfcourt offense, and collect a few more defensive rebounds (or a lot more defensive rebounds?) to spark some transition offense, he’d take another leap. Gobert, despite the issues with fit, is scoring 13.8 points per game (15.8 per 36 minutes) on 67% shooting. These are not his best career numbers, but this is in the ballpark of his Utah production and efficiency. He has not lost athleticism or suffered a career-altering injury. He’s the same guy. He’s huge and hammers a lot of dunks either on his own or finishing lob passes. Jaden McDaniels, perhaps the biggest question mark offensively, is hitting 53% of his shots including 38% of his threes. He’s had several games where he looks like the budding star that Chris Finch sees in him. Karl-Anthony Towns, a somewhat forgotten man amid the recent losing streak (he’s missed the last 15 games with a calf injury) is nothing if not an offensive force. His offensive fit with Rudy was horrific, but hardly given a chance at development. Karl was always going to be a little bit too ambitious for a pure “floor spacer,” role, but Finch seems to appreciate how badly such players are needed.

What generated so much preseason hype and anticipation remains just as true today, after 36 disappointing games: The Timberwolves are loaded with talent. They just need to make it work as a team. If Finch is the offensive guru that he’s often made out to be, he’ll get this on track with more time. Which brings us to the next source of hope…

  • Reason #2 for Timberwolves Hope: Much of their recent struggles are attributable to injuries.

First off, every team is missing guys. That’s just the league now – the best veteran players all but plan to play fewer than 82 games; sometimes way less. With that said, however, this Wolves team has been torn apart by injuries over the last month-plus. While the KAT injury relieved some of the horrible-chemistry tension that was plaguing the starting five, he’s too good of a player for his absence to be felt not at all. They might have been able to withstand that injury, however, due to the unique depth at the center position, where they not only have Gobert, but also Naz Reid eager to find more minutes. But with the Towns injury came other ones that really hurt. Jordan McLaughlin for a while there seemed like the only player capable of busting up the offensive stasis to actually shift opposing defenses and get the basketball moving around. Well, he’s missed 16 of their last 19 games, most recently out with the same calf injury that KAT has. J-Mac’s offensive rating is best amongst rotation players. His defensive rating is cartoonishly good – an unsustainable 100.9. (For context, the Cavs lead the league in D-Rtg at 108.6.) In Finch’s free-flowing system so dependent on improvisational initiation of movement, J-Mac is more important than he might seem to an outsider looking at the roster. So is Taurean Prince, one of the team’s precious true “3 & D” wings. Prince’s catch-and-shoot competence is missed most acutely when opponents shift into zone defense; a trend of late that has been more effective than it should be in professional basketball. Kyle Anderson is the team’s best bench player and one of it’s 5 best players overall. He’s one of the few capable initiators of team offense on the whole roster. Of the fives consecutive games the Wolves just lost, he was absent with back spasms for the first four of them. And, most recently last night, the Wolves lost a sneaky-winnable game at Milwaukee — while the Bucks are a top team in the league, they were without both Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, and were riding a 4-game losing streak of their own. The game was lost the moment the injury report listed Gobert out with an illness. Without a strong and capable defensive center, Giannis proceeded to drop a 43 & 20 on their heads, mostly via vicious dunk after vicious dunk. The game went almost all the way down to the wire, but Giannis couldn’t be contained. Simply put: if Rudy plays, that game might have gone differently.

None of these players have severe or season-threatening injuries. They will all presumably return to action with a great deal of the season left remaining. Yes, there will be new injuries, but hopefully not the harmful mix they’ve managed recently – missing one of their three star players, their best bench player in Anderson, their best 3 & D guy in Prince, and their best all-around point guard in McLaughlin. If the Wolves get healthy, and if with better health comes improved offensive cohesion, they should improve significantly in the second half of this season.

  • Reason #3 for Timberwolves Hope: The Shape of the West

If the Wolves can just get into the 8-team playoff tree, they will probably find themselves in an intriguing and not-predetermined-outcome type of matchup. Right now, the West is led by the Pelicans, then the Nuggets, and then the Grizzlies. These are all very good teams. None of these, however, are “great” teams of the variety that typically have an easy time advancing past their first one or two playoff opponents. There are no dynasties here, and there are probably not any budding dynasties here either. None have multiple superstar players in the way most traditional title teams do. The Wolves showed just last year how beatable Memphis is. We’ve had enough Nuggets matchups to have some unscared familiarity. The Zion situation with New Orleans is potentially a little bit different, but his health history always leaves some degree of doubt. Also, he and Brandon Ingram have not formed a natural chemistry even as their team succeeds right now, with BI on the shelf. Golden State LAC, and Phoenix have the on-paper potential to be a cut above the field, and possibly unbeatable by the Wolves in a playoff series. But right now the Warriors are 9th and the Suns are 7th, and both are missing their best players with significant injuries. The Clips are doing a science experiment on how many games the best players can rest before the playoffs, and they will probably end up with a middle seed.

If the Wolves cannot secure home-court advantage — and, let’s be real, it sure seems like they cannot — then landing a 7 or 8 seed might potentially be preferable to the 5 or 6, if it means facing a team like the Nuggets instead of a healthier and geared-up version of the Warriors or Clippers.

This is a year where the West will be wide open. Get yourself a ticket for admission and see what happens. It would have been nice had the Wolves met preseason hopes of a 50-win campaign, but 44 might be enough to have an exciting playoff opportunity.

  • Reason #4 for Timberwolves Hope: They have plenty of untapped potential over the long-term.

I’ve seen different iterations of this basic doom and gloom sentiment: “They’ve played all of their cards and have no remaining ability or flexibility to improve. If this doesn’t work out, all is lost.”

While Gobert disappointing as an individual would certainly be disappointing and harmful, the notion of total hopelessness misses the bigger picture here.

What’s the worst thing that could happen to this Timberwolves building project?

Easy answer: Anthony Edwards fails to become a superstar.

What’s the second worst thing that could happen to this Timberwolves building project?

Slightly more difficult, but still sort of easy answer: Jaden McDaniels fails to become a high-level player that complements Edwards.

These two items working out in the Wolves favor was the major bet that was made when Connelly traded away so many future draft picks in exchange for Rudy Gobert. If Ant and Jaden pan out as a viable, title-contending 1-2 punch, then the Wolves don’t need first round picks in the same way that rebuilding teams need first round picks. Of course it doesn’t mean the cost was meaningless, negligible, or even reasonable. Future firsts are the chief trade currency in the NBA today. (Note: That Tom Thibodeau traded away precisely zero future firsts as Wolves POBO was seemingly forgotten when Wolves media and social media tried to convince themselves that he ruined the state of the franchise, but I digress.) But Ant just recently turned 21 years old. Last night he dropped 30 & 10 in Milwaukee and it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. He’s starting to improve as a passer. He’s showing increased awareness of transition opportunities in ways he didn’t a year ago, or even a month ago. As already mentioned, he might make this year’s All-Star Team. The Anthony Edwards bet is looking so good, so far. Jaden is not as good as Ant, but we’ve seen him show more than flashes of spectacular defense against the best players in the NBA — players like Luka and Zion — and do so while expanding his own offensive arsenal. Jaden turned 22 in September. His Finchian prototype, Scottie Pippen, also had a late September birthday, and turned 22 right before his rookie season, when he averaged 8 points and 4 assists per game on a decent Bulls team carried on MJ’s back. Jaden came into the league with more immediate ability than anyone expected, but he was a lot rawer then than he is now. His progress continues. So far, he’s remained on a favorable track.

The Gobert trade might have been a mistake. It might have been a small mistake, a medium-sized mistake, or an enormous mistake. In order for it to be that last one, the Ant and Jaden pairing would need to flop as a true core, and they’d come to regret not having a little bit of remaining tanking/developmental seasons where they could bolster the core via the draft, the way teams like Minnesota must. But there is still very much a possibility that the Gobert trade will be proven to be wise. If the team can develop a successful offense — and really, it should — they should start winning more than they’re losing. That it is better for Ant and Jaden to be winners than losers in their third NBA season shouldn’t be too controversial. Both players are learning how to play to win sooner than many other similarly positioned prospects of their age might.

Whatever happens with Ant and Jaden will eventually be analyzed with a lot of 20/20 hindsight. If they disappoint, it will because they were not allowed enough time to grow before expectations were raised unfairly high, too soon. If they thrive, it will be because they were battling in playoff games before they were legally allowed to drink a beer, and the competitive environment taught them what goes into winning. But viewed in the proper lens where these two players are central, there is no reason to worry that the Wolves have prematurely tapped out all of their potential way too soon. If this goes to plan, Ant and Jaden will become the Marbury and Garnett, Love and Rubio, and Wiggins and Towns that never quite was, before them. There’s years of growth ahead for that to happen, and that means there’s a lot of remaining hope for long-term improvement and success.

As we leave 2022 and enter 2023, it’s worth reminding ourselves where we were at this point in the season a year ago, before all the fun that came with making the playoffs and battling the Grizzlies in Round 1.

Before the season I thought the Wolves would win about 50 games. Now, I’d revise that downward to about 45. I do think that getting healthier and developing better team habits offensively will gradually reveal that basic truth that this is a roster loaded with talent.

Perhaps it would benefit the team and all of us fans to heed the advice and approach of an old friend as we enter 2023.

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On Role Players & D’Angelo Russell

Al Jefferson should’ve made the All-Star Team.

His numbers in 2009 were better than Shaq’s. Big Al averaged 23.1 points and 11 boards to O’Neal’s 17.8 and 8.4. Jefferson’s lack of team success could hardly be held against him. Ryan Gomes led that Wolves team in minutes. Randy Foye was second, Mike Miller was third, and Sebastian Telfair was fourth. Kevin Love was just a rookie. Shaq’s Suns only won 46 games that year, which seems like a decent season until you notice it was the low outlier amongst basically their entire Steve Nash Era. It wasn’t like Diesel was driving team success either. Yet Shaq made the All-Star Team and Jefferson didn’t, probably due to name recognition and as a lifetime achievement award.

So, yes. Al Jefferson should’ve made that ’09 All-Star Team. Even if his torn ACL wouldn’t have allowed him to play in it.

I used to believe that was true, anyway. I’m not really sure anymore. Big Al was the Wolves first “star” after the Kevin Garnett Era, and there was a natural sense to rally behind him as a new foundation to build upon. In a league that was moving away from traditional low-post play, Big Al had the best back-to-the-basket footwork in the league. The hope was that one or two high lottery picks could be used to fill out a bigtime nucleus, with Jefferson right at the center of it.

There was a fundamental problem, or at least a fundamental limitation, on Big Al, however, that I probably didn’t appreciate back in 2009 when I thought he should be an All-Star. That problem was this: Jefferson pretty much commanded a central role on his team’s offense, and as the central “go-to guy” piece, he was never going to be dominant enough to carry a team deep into the playoffs. He was “good/not great,” but his style was such that he took on the role of a great player.

He had better teammates after leaving the Wolves. Playing with the likes of Deron Williams and Paul Millsap in Utah, and then with Kemba Walker in Charlotte, Big Al played on some teams that won about half their games. He usually led those teams in scoring. And that’s kind of how he should be remembered: a guy who could put up numbers on mediocre teams.

Jefferson was unable to function as a role player, which would help explain why he never played on any great teams. Some players enter the league as high draft picks on bad teams, put up numbers for a few years, and eventually carve out a lower-statistics role on teams that have great success. Usually this involves greater dedication to the defensive side of the floor, as well as learning how to play more off the ball, not requiring such a central role in the offensive attack. I’m thinking of players like Andre Iguodala, Al Horford, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, Ron Harper.

Al Jefferson could not make that sort of transition, and I’m pretty sure D’Angelo Russell cannot make it either.

D’Lo’s put up numbers everywhere he’s been. And his teams have tended to win about as much as Al Jefferson’s did. His two Lakers teams won 17 and then 26 games. His first Nets team won 28 games. The stars aligned for him in that ’18-19 season, making the All-Star Team as an injury replacement, and they won 42 games. He averaged 21.1 points per game that year, attempting 18.7 shots per game. Next highest on the team was Spencer Dinwiddie’s 12.2 shots. Russell showed that he could, in the right circumstances, be the first option on a .500ish team. Kinda like Big Al.

From there he went to Golden State for half a season, and they were horrible (finished the year at 15-50). He came to the Wolves, which was hardly any better – he played 12 games of their 19-45 campaign. In ’20-21, Russell helped get Ryan Saunders fired. That team went 23-49 with Russell putting up 19 points and 5.8 assists per game. Last year’s 46-win campaign was a second stars-aligning season for Russell. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 assists on that Wolves team. Of his seven seasons in the league before this one, five involved mass losing, two were slightly over .500, and all but maybe his rookie year had D’Lo as a central piece to the action.

This matters because this year’s Timberwolves team desperately needs some role players. They need at least one, but preferably two or even three, starters who are primarily focused on their defensive assignments and on participating in team offense without holding the ball or hijacking the play. We know that will never be Anthony Edwards just as well as we know that will never be Karl-Anthony Towns. Jaden McDaniels has the clear-cut potential to be an elite role player, and yet he isn’t quite ready to be one. He’s a little too ambitious offensively (probably at Finch’s urging, based on the coach’s oft quoted “Scottie Pippen” comparison) and he fouls too much defensively. Rudy Gobert is a multiple-time All-Star whose literal physical presence around the basket kind of necessitates at least a reasonably large role in the offense.

The Wolves are underachieving. They are 7-8 as of this writing, and that sub-.500 record comes against an incredibly soft opening schedule. Their wins have come against the Thunder twice (one without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander active), Spurs, Lakers, Rockets, Cavs without Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen, and then the Magic. They haven’t beaten a good team yet. They’ve lost to the Jazz, Spurs twice (!), Suns twice, and once without Chris Paul, Bucks, Knicks, and Grizzlies. They’re ranked 13th in offense and 18th in defense. As the schedule toughens up over time, those rankings will drop further if things don’t change.

The starting five should theoretically be excellent offensively, but the opposite is true, so far. In 198 minutes, they have an offensive rating of 105.7. That would rank 29th in the league. This is a lineup that has Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert in it.

It also has D’Angelo Russell, and he seems to be a harmful presence. He seems to be unable to adjust to a role-player position. Jordan McLaughlin, on the other hand, is nothing if not a role player. He comes in the game high on energy and low on natural ability. He’s small and he can’t even shoot, but just by pushing the ball, getting rid of it quickly, and trying his hardest, he’s able to fulfill the needs of this team out of its point-guard position. A team that has sufficient firepower on the wing and in the post does not need a point guard stalling the movement or taking contested jumpshots off the dribble. McLaughlin leads the team in net rating by a big margin, at +13.5 points per 100 possessions. When McLaughlin is off the floor, the Wolves are outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions.

This is really less about J-Mac than it is about D’Lo. For a team with Ant, Jaden, and KAT to hum offensively, they need the other guard to just stay the hell out of the way. Bonus points if that guard will give a shit defensively. It is hard to overstate just how little talent the Timberwolves require out of that point guard spot.

When LeBron went to Miami, the Heat started off with a 9-8 record. LeBron and Wade were arguably the two best players in the world at that point in time, but they did not have a natural fit as teammates. Chris Bosh would ultimately become one of the most overqualified “role players” in league history, without which they might not have won any titles. Consider how various iterations of the Team USA Dream Teams, loaded with superstar talent but short on gritty role players, sometimes struggle to beat far inferior international teams that have better chemistry.

In last week’s win at Cleveland, D’Lo had 30 points and 11 assists. He was instrumental to getting that particular win. There was an instant urge felt by many to declare that to be some sort of good news; as if maybe something clicked that will sustain going forward. I guess I felt kind of the opposite; that it bought him another 10 or so starts before Finch eventually, belatedly, pulls the plug. It has not been difficult to observe the failed chemistry of this year’s underachieving team through 15 games, nor has it been difficult to identify the primary source of toxicity. They need a humble point guard with little to no expectations for himself who will put 80 percent of his energy into defense and the other 20 percent into getting the ball up the floor and in someone else’s hands asap. That player is not D’Angelo Russell, and it never will be D’Angelo Russell. Asking D’Lo to transform into a role player would’ve been like asking Big Al to transform into one. What are they gonna do, play defense?

It’s time to move on from Russell.


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The Wolves are Loaded

The Timberwolves are loaded.  

Whatever one thinks or believes about how they came to this point, there is no escaping the basic reality. It’s a sentence that has rarely ever in history been able to be said with a straight face. While 2004 was a great team, it did not have major preseason hype – Cassell and Sprewell were getting older, and it was not clear they’d mesh as amazingly-well as they did. The rest of KG’s teams were either in the “super exciting, but still too young” or “My God, Kevin Garnett needs a supporting cast already” buckets.  

Nobody was really saying “The Timberwolves are loaded” – not that I can recall, anyway.  

When Thibs got Jimmy, there was a ton of excitement and big expectations. I certainly had them. That moment might even rival this one for generating preseason hype, but I think this one deserves a slight edge.

The Rudy Gobert Trade was the major NBA event of this past offseason. It is uncommon for a player as good as Gobert to be traded long before his contract is set to expire. It is uncommon for a team as far from title contention as the Wolves have been to send out a whole bunch of unprotected first round draft picks. 

When the news broke, my reaction was probably a common one amongst Wolves fans: Major shock, followed by a brief fear that we sent away Jaden McDaniels, followed by a brief sigh of relief that we didn’t send away Jaden McDaniels, followed by a near-cardiac event caused by the number of future first round picks listed on Woj’s next tweet, followed by a gradual realization that the major, immediate, and probably lasting improvement to this roster is likely to make the Wolves one of the league’s best teams for the foreseeable future.  

With the trade and with their other offseason moves, the Wolves should be solid at every position and elite at two or three of them.

PG – D’Angelo Russell
SG – Anthony Edwards
SF – Jaden McDaniels
PF – Karl-Anthony Towns
C – Rudy Gobert

The bench will have some position battles ahead. However it shakes out, there should be ample veteran competence at Chris Finch’s disposal, between Kyle Anderson, Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince, Bryn Forbes, and the holdovers Jordan McLaughlin, Jaylen Nowell, and Naz Reid.

The Timberwolves are loaded? 

Yeah, they really are. 

While ending it right there with a handful of LFG!!! gifs would be fine and reasonable, that would be bad blogging. There are plenty of questions to ask — after all, nobody will have the Wolves as their 2022-23 preseason championship favorite. What might go wrong? What might go right that people expect might go wrong? What else can be said?

Here’s a few to chew on:

  • Can “Twin Towers” work in the current NBA?

Great question! For most teams, the answer seems to be “No,” at least if you’re talking about a primary frontcourt duo that will spend a great deal of time together, including the closing minutes of close games. There are two main problems with playing two oversized big men, only one of which might apply to the Towns-Gobert tandem.

First is offense, and the need to have at least 4 shooters on the floor at all times to maximize efficiency. With KAT establishing a reputation as one of the greatest shooting big men to ever play (Eds note: let’s let him advance a single round in the playoffs before we take this too far. Put some respect on Dirk Nowitzki’s name!!!) this should not be a problem. Gobert will operate as a screen and roll man, occupying the lane when they share the floor. Karl — ***IF HE KEEPS HIS HEAD ON STRAIGHT AND RIDS HIMSELF OF STRAY VOLTAGE*** — will space the floor, knock down threes, and be back on defense. Finch would do well to stagger the two bigs a great deal in the middle of games, so that Karl can punish backup big men in the post when Rudy’s taking a rest. I expect that to happen quite a lot. From an offensive side of the floor perspective, there shouldn’t be anything but optimism for the Towns & Gobert Twin Towers.

Second is defense, and that’s a little different. When teams go with two big men, the defensive challenge is in contesting perimeter shots; especially against quick ball movement that requires dedicated close-outs. Now, I don’t know exactly what Karl weighs right now. Depending on the article you read, he might’ve gained 30 lbs of muscle or lost 120 pounds to illness. But he usually looks pretty much the same, and that’s a pretty big dude; an NBA center’s body more than a modern NBA four man’s. He’s spent most of his career playing the five spot, and most of that time doing so in a “drop” scheme that kept him closer to the basket than to the three-point line. When he shares the floor with Gobert, he’ll have that inverted. Closing out after that final kick-out pass is thankless work — it doesn’t get rewarded with a statistic — but do it enough times, and it gets rewarded with winning, and that brings about the reputation that Towns so desires. #WhatGoesIntoWinning

Do I sound a little like Thibs? Maybe I should move onto the next question. Offense should be great. Defense could be great (Did I just bury the lede? We just added the best defensive player in the league. There is that. Maybe the Wolves will be incredible on defense?) but it requires a full Towns buy-in to the little things, especially the ones that don’t show up in the stat sheet. If Karl can defend the stretch-4 position at even a slightly below average level, the addition of Gobert and the surrounding athleticism of Ant and Jaden should have the makings of a very good, if not elite, defensive ball-club.

  • Just exactly how good is Ant going to be?

This is a big question, maybe the biggest question. It’s just not a terribly interesting one to think about because we can really only wait and see. Will he keep improving as a shooter? Will he open up his passing field of vision and become a primary playmaker? Will he — as Zach Lowe just predicted on his podcast will eventually happen — become an NBA All-Defense performer?

The best answer is: We hope so!

ESPN’s Top 100 was just released, and the local buzz involved the Wolves being the only team with three guys in the Top-25. Ant himself came in at 25th, which was the surprise of story — that’s a high rank for someone yet to really sniff an All-Star appearance. But that’s what people are seeing in him. He’s got the physical tools of a Dwyane Wade or a Kobe Bryant. He’s certainly got charisma and swagger and whatever it is that usually gets summarized as that “it” factor. What’s left now is delivery on that promise, and hopefully a long career of high-level success.

  • What about D’Lo?

The Wolves are coming off of a surprisingly competitive season where all reasonable expectations were exceeded and tons of fun was had along the way. They just made a huge offseason trade that figures to launch them farther up the standings in a competitive Western Conference. Positivity is flowing right now, and it should be.

The D’Angelo Russell situation, however, could be cause for concern. Exactly one year ago, at the 2021-22 Timberwolves Media Day, D’Lo was excited to point out that he was entering a “contract year.” This wasn’t self-evident to me or probably most people listening to him that day, because his contract was not expiring; it just happened to include extension eligibility following the season. Based on his remarks, he was pretty clearly hoping to earn a long-term deal.

That didn’t happen, and that didn’t happen right after Chris Finch benched D’Lo in the final minutes of the final playoff game of the season. While there were aspects of Russell’s season that were somewhat good (in particular, in the early part of the year when he was the team’s plus-minus king over an extended stretch and found a helpful role in a blitzing defense spearheaded by Pat Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt) it was more generally a disappointment. Nobody who analyzes the league objectively is especially high on Russell right now. He’s a poor defender, a streaky shooter, and while his highlight passes are some of the best the world has to offer, he just as often dribbles the air out of the ball and disrupts offensive team chemistry.

For this upcoming season, Russell is as big of a wildcard as the team has. The strategic approach that would maximize Timberwolves success would involve snappy passing decisions that get the ball out of his hands and into KAT’s or Ant’s asap. It would involve sacrificing a little bit of his body on defense for the greater good. These are not the sorts of strategies that got D’Lo his last max contract, however, and they are not the sorts of strategies that would get him another big one. Essentially, he’s facing a complicated incentive structure and it’s anyone’s guess how it plays out.

To put a positive spin on D’Lo’s continued presence on the Timberwolves roster – he adds quite a lot of Regular Season Anthony Edwards Insurance. If Ant sprains an ankle or has a flare-up of knee pain and misses two weeks, D’Lo is more than qualified to effectively sub in as the team’s primary initiator. With Russell grabbing the wheel, they can still compete. That is meaningful. But in the broader question of “just how great can this team be?” there are legitimate reasons to wonder if D’Lo will hold them back.

  • What happens with greater expectations?

This question could be interpreted or answered in any number of ways, but it is maybe the biggest one of all. Last season’s team outperformed expectations and great fun was had. Karl saw the his first reputational bump in years, and made All-NBA. Fans fell even more in love with Ant. Chris Finch’s approval rating was one hundred percent.

Expectations will be higher this year. With Gobert and such a deep lineup overall, pundits are already starting to see the Wolves as a clear-cut playoff team and possibly even a Top 4 seed. This is in a healthier Western Conference that should generate a harder schedule, too.

A concern would be that higher expectations will cause more adversity and the most important people will respond poorly to it. That could be Ant and KAT sharing the spotlight, or KAT and Rudy trying to share the frontcourt, or Chris Finch and a player or two getting tired of each other. It would be the exception to the rule if the Timberwolves entered the ranks of the league’s most competitive teams and did NOT face some sort of personality or locker-room conflict, and it’s impossible to foresee how that shakes out. It is almost too certain a thing to bother worrying about it — like feeling anxiety over the possibility of sub-zero temps in Minneapolis this winter.

With that said, however, the whole premise begins with a positive note; the one at the front of this post. The Timberwolves are loaded. Good basketball is better than bad basketball. If more winning causes more tension at times, we file that away as a “good problem to have.” Additionally, with this Wolves team, I look forward to watching them face the best teams in the league this year. Of course in an 82-game season anything can happen on any night — winning one of those games does not necessarily mean much. But fans of the Wolves understand that when they’ve faced the Sixers or Bucks — teams with physically dominant superstars — they were the underdog, and might even get blown out. With Gobert, that should no longer be the case. As basic a concept as it sounds, a fun part of this season will be watching the biggest matchups in hopes of not only winning the game, but appearing as the better team.

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Connelly & the Road Ahead

The big news around the Timberwolves is the recent hiring of Tim Connelly to head up the basketball operations. While the former Nuggets POBO technically supplants Sachin Gupta as Wolves Basketball Boss, it would be truer to say that he’ll succeed Gersson Rosas as the next in a line of Timberwolves franchise leaders. This is major news; certainly the biggest since Rosas himself was unexpectedly fired, and it will undoubtedly determine the course of things for the next several years – for better or worse.

Connelly (Eds note: in the spirit of the Punch-Drunk Glossary it takes all of my restraint to not obnoxiously spell this “Kahnnelly,” and on Twitter you can just expect that I’ll buckle and resort to stupidity often) was apparently wooed by new owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, and — more importantly, I’m sure — a huge financial boost from his Denver situation. Glen opened the checkbook and got it done. When you combine Connelly’s track record of success and reputation around the league with the Timberwolves… well, their entire history, this is a shocking development. Glen is still the majority owner who will primarily fund this venture, and his history strongly leans toward local and parochial. When he has ventured outside of that country club comfort zone, he’s generally been burned. (Eds note: He’s also been burned with the local and parochial.) It is a credit to A-Rod and Lore that they were able to sell their senior partner on investing big in franchise leadership.

Just because it’s good news doesn’t mean I have any idea what happens next. The Wolves just completed a feel-good 46-win season, one year removed from a 23-49 (26-win pace) debacle that had me fairly certain Karl-Anthony Towns was done in Minnesota and a full rebuild was the responsible course. Chris Finch fully settled in and showed everybody that the Timberwolves are well-coached again. KAT got healthy and rededicated, after a difficult couple of years on and especially off the floor. Ant made more strides after a promising rookie campaign. Pat Beverley arrived, played good basketball, and rocked the everliving shit out of the Wolves boat. That was a really fun Wolves team, and — along with 2017-18 and pre-ACL 2011-12 — one of the only on-court enjoyable seasons since the KG days.

With that said, and as I last wrote about on this space, at least some of that uptick in quality might’ve been fool’s gold. The league was unusually injured last season, especially in the Western Conference. Next year, teams that missed the West playoffs figure to bring back megastars mostly or entirely absent from 2021-22. Zion Williamson, Kawhi Leonard, Dame Lillard… The Wolves themselves were relatively healthy. Despite their strong showing against the 2-seed Grizzlies in Round 1, there is a prevailing sense that the team has considerable work ahead of it, to become the legitimate contender that everyone wants to see.

Where does this leave us?

I guess that’s a good first question for Tim Connelly, huh?

A few different thoughts and observations on all of this, in no coherent order:

  • Marc Lore on Reading, Thinking, etc.

I can’t get this little segment of Steve Marsh’s excellent profile of Marc Lore out of my head:

“It’s why I don’t watch any TV and why I don’t read…If it takes me six hours to read a book, do you know how much thinking I can do in six hours?”

What kind of Russ Hanneman shit is this?! Lore doesn’t read because he wants to spend that time…thinking? What does he think happens when one reads? They zone out? Reading is a pretty common vehicle to think about stuff….I think? Okay, to be fair, Loren did elaborate a little bit:

“[S]omebody else’s opinion could give you tunnel vision. They make the argument, and because you don’t know enough about the topic, it’s very logical, but you don’t know there’s a whole other argument.”

This sounds more like The Anxiety of Influence that I touched on a couple of posts ago — the way that encountering someone else’s work can inhibit one’s own creativity. I suppose if Lore was articulating something along these lines it’s less bizarre, but Billionaire Speak can be pretty wild. Read the entire Marsh piece when you have time. Lore seems like a different dude. Most relevant for our purposes, however: he helped get Tim Connelly, and the basic financial reality of that investment suggests he got Connelly so that Connelly can lead his team. That’s unequivocally good.

  • Wolves History & A New POBO’s Incentive

This wouldn’t have to be true, but it feels intuitively correct:

Any new president of basketball operations has an incentive to start from scratch, or at least start from a roster place where there is considerable space to be filled before the team realizes its potential. I’m sure this isn’t an original thought, and I’m definitely sure it’s not the first time I’ve expressed some version of it. A great and/or terrible part of Twitter is that you can search all the old takes. Since it’s increasingly become my medium for vomiting out Wolves thoughts, I did a quick “@PDWolves + ‘new POBO'” search, and sure enough I was on the case in Summer 2019, when Rosas was laying waste to his new roster:

3 Basic reasons for why this is or at least might be true:
  1. Blowing up the roster and starting from scratch allows for the most room to improve. It creates the circumstances for the POBO to personally achieve greatness in the field. Ego.
  2. It allows for the most time to improve. Starting at 20 wins and moving up allows more time to show progress and be considered successful. Job security.
  3. A blank canvass allows the POBO to create his ideal team, rather than the best realistic one under whatever practical limitations exist on the roster. Vision.

The main POBOs in Wolves history have been Kevin McHale, David Kahn, Flip Saunders, Tom Thibodeau, and Gersson Rosas.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Wolves are the losing-est franchise of the major men’s professional sports, only McHale and arguably Kahn took over when the team was at one of its especially low points. This is relative of course — I’m talking Timberwolves standards.

McHale joined the front office in 1994, and in ’95 became the general manager/front office leader. In the three years leading up to that point, the team had won 19, 20, and then 21 games. They were flatlined at the bottom of the league. He drafted KG and earned himself about 15 years of job security.

Kahn took over for McHale, and while the team was bad – no doubt – it had recently teased some competence before Al Jefferson tore his ACL in early February. They had the league’s best record in January 2009! (#NeverForget) Kahn would’ve been well within his rights to keep the essence of that roster intact, and try to build incrementally with more draft picks to supplement his core that was winning before the best player got hurt. His first major move was ultimately his best roster move ever, however: he flipped Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington for the rights to the 6th pick in the draft. From the Wizards perspective, that ultimately shakes out as having traded the chance to draft Steph Curry for a Foye & Miller Poo Poo Platter. For purposes of this discussion, the move signaled Kahn’s (ultimately correct!) assessment that the inherited roster was not going to cut it, and so he took out the bulldozer and got to work. Kahn had a lot of big ideas that might’ve worked splendidly, had he ever chosen the best or even the second or third or fourth best available players with his war chest of lottery picks.

Flip took the wheel from Kahn when the team was in healthier shape. This was May 2013, after the 2012-13 season in which Ricky Rubio gradually returned to form after ACL surgery, but Kevin Love had gone and broken the bones in his hand in some type of accident that he infamously characterized as “knuckle push-ups.” Even without Love or healthy Ricky, the ’12-13 team won 31 games. By Timberwolves standards that deserves a freaking banner. Also, never forget how great of a coach Rick Adelman was. But I digress. Flip was not one for inaction, and his first moves were to add veterans and go all-in on a Kevin Love-led team. This is not “blowing it up,” but when that team failed to deliver as needed (40-42 in 2013-14, before Love’s trade request) he soon took out the same bulldozer as Kahn. Love was gone, so were other healthy veterans, and we were soon watching Zach LaVine’s on-the-job training en route to a 16-66 season and the rights to Karl-Anthony Towns in the 2015 NBA Draft. Job well done, at least in terms of getting the best tanking result possible.

Thibs likewise took over a better-than-usual Wolves situation. With Flip’s roster and Smitch’s coaching, the 2015-16 Wolves won 29 games, nearly double the 16 of the prior season. Progress was visible, hope was in the air, and a new high-profile Basketball Caesar was the last big step before lots of rings would happen. Thibs, for his part, was patient. Many expected immediate “win now” moves. Instead he coached and observed, waiting until the no-brainer Jimmy Butler trade materialized the following summer, at a time when LaVine was rehabbing his own torn ACL. Thibs’s legacy is generally misrepresented by anyone other than me and like 4 of my friends on Twitter, but there is no escaping that — for his own reasons, maybe more peculiar than basic “ego” — he gradually developed a team that was more to his liking and familiarity. The TimberBulls eventually included not only Butler, but Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and even Luol Deng. This is not the same as “blowing it up,” but it is an example of a POBO’s personal quirks directly shaping what the roster comes to look like.

Rosas inherited a legitimately competitive roster, and one that had ample young talent to continue improving. I’ve lamented the way he blew it apart too many times to rehash in detail here. The arrogance he showed in his early roster demolition portended the drama that unfolded not long after, resulting in his shocking fall from grace and the POBO Chair.

  • What does Connelly do then?

Connelly inherits a slightly better situation than Rosas did. Even if last year’s 46 wins was a little inflated, he’s still got a KAT that he can sign to a long-term extension and an Ant who is STILL NOT EVEN 21 YEARS OLD. (Sorry– caps lock got stuck.) This roster needs work, and the first order of business is navigating the D’Angelo Russell Is Up For a Kahntract Extension that Nobody In Their Right Mind Would Give Him, But You Also Don’t Want Him Checked Out Next Year If He’s Not Extended terrain.

For those of us who have been here for the last 3 seasons, there’s probably some type of rough consensus of wanting to see a bright future with Ant, Jaden, and KAT.

But Connelly hasn’t been here. He’s new, like Kahn was once new, like Flip was new for the second time in 2013, like Thibs was new, and like Rosas was new.

He’s apparently going to be paid a ton of money for a five-year deal. That should hypothetically erase some of the “job security” incentive to start at the bottom. But there’s still the other New POBO psychology to consider, along with the roster questions about how good this team really is, as presently constructed.

On Tuesday, we’re going to meet Tim Connelly for the first time. Take some notes.

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Timberwolves at the All-Star Break: What’s true, what’s interesting, and what’s the difference?

It’s All-Star Weekend, and things are peaceful in Wolves World.

The team has a 31-28 record through 59 games. Through three quarters of the season they’re pacing for a favorable spot in the Play-In Tournament, with a chance at cracking the top six in the West and going straight to the actual playoffs. Compared to last season’s 23-49 campaign with most of the same key players, the progress is undeniable.

Sprinkled on top of the massive uptick in #winning are the spoils that go to the more frequent victors: On Friday night both Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards participated in the Rising Stars Challenge. On Saturday night Karl-Anthony Towns will participate in the Three-Point Contest, before playing in the All-Star Game itself on Sunday evening. Wolves players are being celebrated by the league this weekend. Coach Chris Finch, at this point, seems to be developing a reputation for being good at his job.

Things are good with the Timberwolves.

The truth is good, but interesting is better.”

Christopher Walken referenced that quote without attribution when explaining his acting process, and how he will sometimes have completely random thoughts and inspirations behind his work that nobody could ever know about. “Sometimes I do things just to amuse myself. I’ve played scenes pretending that I was Elvis or Bugs Bunny or a U-boat commander. I just don’t tell anybody.” I suppose he means here that the “truth” is what the character is on the script, and the “interesting” is everything he puts into it that is undefined and even unknowable. It would be possible, but far from necessary for the two things to contradict one another.

Over the past couple of Timberwolves seasons, the truth was as clear as it was interesting, if that’s the right word — if “interesting” in NBA Twitterverse discourse roughly equates with the temperature of a “take.” Put differently, interesting in this space might often refer to the difference between perception and reality.

The truth about the last couple Wolves seasons was that they made terrible decisions, and performed terribly as a result. Right as their franchise player was supposed to be entering his prime, they gutted the roster of veteran supporting talent and nepotistically hired an unqualified coach. In the COVID-shortened seasons of 2019-20 and 2020-21, they compiled a combined record of 42-94. In a savage twist of the knife, amid all of this losing, their new president traded AWAY a mostly-unprotected first round pick; one that immediately turned into the seventh overall selection in a strong draft class. He did this to obtain D’Angelo Russell, whose Wolves tenure prior to this season was defined by missing games for vague injuries, and performing badly on the nights he did suit up.

The truth was not pretty.

What was interesting was that so much of this was tolerated or even sometimes celebrated by the media and the fan base. Everything from Ryan to Rosas to Russell was met with consensus approval, despite most all evidence — some immediately available, some accumulating gradually — that Things Were Bad. One could speculate on the reasons for this disconnect, but first I just need to share Stephen A. Smith’s recent outburst as an example of what big-market media does when its team is falling short of expectations:

Okay, enough about all that. I’ve belabored the points about the last few seasons of post-Thibs mistakes enough times. I probably do it every time I write anything about this team.

Back to the present, because the present is better than the recent past. What’s true and what’s interesting, and do they diverge from each other?

I opened this piece with what’s true. The team is performing well and getting its flowers for doing so. Things are good.

What’s interesting is what could be underneath some of this progress.

The question some are asking themselves, even as we enjoy winning more than half the games, is how much of this is real, versus how much of it might be the product of a fluky season of star-player injuries that seems to bizarrely benefit the Timberwolves in a disproportionate way?

Before I dig into the Wolves-schedule specifics, just to hopefully help highlight that this is a real thing – I’ll paste in the remarks made by NBA gambling guru and recent Dallas Mavericks front office decision-maker, Haralabob Voulgaris, about the good fortune of the Phoenix Suns, for essentially the same reason:

Essentially, Voulgaris says that while the Suns ARE a great team, their amazing record (48-10) should be discounted a bit by the fact that they have not had key players miss too many games. If you take a closer look, however, it isn’t as if the Suns have been immune to key-guy injuries. Yes, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges are a perfect 58 for 58, but Devin Booker has missed 7 games, and Jae Crowder’s missed 10 games, and Deandre Ayton has missed 21. In the 2021-22 Western Conference, this constitutes a noteworthily clean sheet of health.

Why is this so?

Let’s just run down the list of teams that have been good or even great, but this year have been decimated by injuries:

The Clippers have been without Kawhi Leonard all season. Paul George has played just 26 games.
The Nuggets have been without Jamal Murray all season. Michael Porter Jr. has played just 9 games.
The Blazers have been without Dame Lillard for all of calendar year 2022, and have traded away CJ McCollum in what seems like the first big step toward an inevitable rebuild.
The Lakers, to the extent they might’ve been pretty good despite the front-office mistakes, haven’t been helped by missing LeBron James for 17 contests or Anthony Davis for 21 (and counting).
Zion Williamson hasn’t played a minute for the Pelicans. His co-star Brandon Ingram has missed 14 games himself.
The Warriors 42-17 record is all the more impressive when you consider that Draymond has missed 25 games. He remains out with a back injury that will heavily factor into this year’s title race if it doesn’t heal up.

We’re talking about the best players in the world here. Kawhi, PG13, Dame, Davis, Zion, Draymond. The conference as a whole has been watered down by so many of these superstar players missing so much of the season. The teams with relatively decent health have obviously propped up a bit as a result.

For their part, the Wolves have lost key players to some games – especially during the Omicron COVID-19 surge – but their numbers look more like the Suns’ than their other Western Conference playoff team counterparts. KAT’s played 52 (out of 59) games. Ant’s played 53. D’Lo’s played 45. Patrick Beverley’s 18 missed games, for a variety of minor injuries, is their biggest injury excuse, to date.

And it’s not only that the conference has been generally watered down by star-player injuries. It’s also that the Wolves on a night-to-night basis have had an almost unbelievable pattern of facing teams missing at least one key player. I’ll just take the recent schedule in reverse order, as the pattern has been unmistakable. Absent opposing player’s listed next to the game.

02/16/22 vs Raptors — Fred VanVleet, 2022 All-Star who’s played in 50 other games this season.
02/15/22 vs Hornets – Gordon Hayward, by far the Hornets highest paid player
02/13/22 vs Pacers – Myles Turner & Malcolm Brogdon, their top guys
02/11/22 vs Bulls – Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams — relatively bad example of this trend, but 3 key role players
02/09/22 vs Kings – no key absences
02/08/22 vs Kings – (immediately after big trade with Pacers) Domantas Sabonis, 2020 & 2021 All-Star
02/06/22 vs Pistons – Cade Cunningham, #1 Overall Draft Pick (Pistons are terrible, but have beaten the Celtics and Cavs recently, on nights Cade actually played.)
02/03/22 vs Pistons – Cade Cunningham
02/01/22 vs Nuggets – Jamal Murray & Michael Porter Jr.
01/30/22 vs Jazz – Donovan Mitchell & Rudy Gobert – the foundation of a title contender
01/28/22 vs Suns – Deandre Ayton & Jae Crowder
01/27/22 vs Warriors – Draymond Green
01/25/22 vs Blazers – Dame Lillard
01/23/22 vs Nets – Kevin Durant
01/19/22 vs Hawks – Clint Capela (*Onyeka Okongwu filled in admirably and this is a bad example of the trend)
01/18/22 vs Knicks – Derrick Rose, without whom the Knicks seem unable to function
01/16/22 vs Warriors – Steph Curry & Draymond Green (1 of just 5 games Curry has missed this year)
01/13/22 vs Grizzlies – Jarrett Culver (hehe – Grizzlies were at full-strength)
01/11/22 vs Pelicans – Zion Williamson
01/09/22 vs Rockets – Rockets don’t have any good players to be missing in the first place

Anyway, that’s the last 20 games. The Wolves went 12-8 over that stretch. I’m not able to put any analytics on this, but it sure seems like the Wolves have had a soft schedule. You can go back earlier in the season and find other examples. A back-to-back set with the Mavs that featured a Luka Doncic absence comes to mind. Out of three Lakers matchups, LeBron’s missed 1 game and Davis has missed 1.5. (He suffered one of his injuries in the middle of a Wolves game.) The fun early-season game at Milwaukee did not include Jrue Holiday. They’ve of course never had to face Kawhi, Jamal Murray, or Zion. They’ve had one Philly matchup, and like everyone else’s, it didn’t include Ben Simmons.

Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

All of this exhaustive recapping of opponent-injury health is to say that it’s possible the Wolves are winning at a rate they might not be able to sustain if and when health around the league returns to something closer to “normal.” Yes there are always injuries, and yes the Wolves have played without key guys for some games too, but this isn’t normal.

If your broad brush belief about the franchise is that winning something like 43 games (traditionally a record on the fringe of the playoffs) is a huge difference from winning something like 37 games (outside looking in, unless the conference sucks) then this pattern is definitely relevant, and also pretty interesting in how it does or does not impact the path forward.

Big picture, in the less peaceful moments, we think about timelines — KAT and D’Lo’s, versus Ant and Jaden’s — and whether this team as constructed is kind of “it,” or whether some form of a rebuild is on the way. Sachin Gupta, in his first move of significance since succeeding Gersson Rosas, signed Pat Bev to a one-year extension. Much bigger and potentially-expensive and stone-setting decisions will need to be made this summer with Towns and Russell. Both are extension eligible. (Obviously the Russell decision is more controversial on the Wolves’ end than the KAT one, which has more to do with his satisfaction level and plans.)

Sources of future progress remain, no doubt. Again, two Rising Stars participants. They own their future first rounders, thanks to trade-deadline restraint shown by Gupta. Finch seems to know what he’s doing. This team absolutely could get better, and it could get better progressively to the level everyone wants to see.

But this opponent injury thing is crazy. I think it’s kind of interesting. And if it really is boosting up the Wolves record in a way that proves unsustainable, there might be a few members of Wolves Nation crying out next year like Stephen A Smith, aghast as to why things are moving the wrong direction instead of the right one.

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Towns, Edwards, Wolves History, and the Season Ahead

If you Google search “Christian Laettner + Kevin Garnett + Flip Saunders,” a top entry should be a Chicago Tribune story from February 20, 1996. The headline is, “Laettner Aims Tirade at Garnett,” and the text reads as follows:

It was no surprise that Christian Laettner complained after another embarrassing loss by the Minnesota Timberwolves. What was surprising was that popular rookie Kevin Garnett was among Laettner’s targets.

“You’ve got to have the rookies and young kids shut up, and you’ve got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team,” Laettner said after Sunday’s loss to Washington. “We’ve got some big britches on this team. We’ve got a lot of people who know everything.”

Garnett, who has moved into the starting lineup one year after playing at Chicago’s Farragut High School, had left the locker room and was unavailable for comment. Coach Flip Saunders acknowledged some of his players might be jealous of Garnett, who has become a fan favorite at Target Center.

“The sad thing is they can say whatever they want, but that kid knows how to play basketball and he’s better than anyone in that locker room,” Saunders said.


Stay on Google and this time search “Timberwolves trade laettner” and “” has a long news story (“Atlanta Hawks Acquire Christian Laettner” that is dated February 22, 1996 — just two days after the Tribune’s about the post-game blow-up. The whole thing is worth reading, as it outlines much of the early-Wolves forward’s issues. But in the pertinent part, it addressed the timing of the trade:

The Wolves started off 2-12 in the Saunders era. The team was still struggling to figure out roles among a large group of young players. The team was 15-36 when they decided to deal Laettner to the Atlanta Hawks. Recently, Laettner had alienated his teammates when he offered veiled criticism towards the organization and Garnett during the season. After a February 18, 1996 loss to the Washington Bullets, Laettner gave his view–in the Chicago Tribuneon how to best manage the Wolves roster:

“You’ve got to have the rookies and young kids shut up, and you’ve got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team. We’ve got some big britches on this team. We’ve got a lot of people who know everything.”

While not saying Garnett’s name specifically, it was clear to everyone that the tirade was lobbed in the direction of Minnesota’s prized rookie. The next day, the Timberwolves held a players only meeting where Laettner’s public comments were addressed. Laettner didn’t speak or address his comments during the meeting and that angered his teammates.

Garnett was untouchable, and had seen his playing time gradually increased to the point that he was moved to the starting lineup in January. With Gugliotta, Laettner and Garnett all starting, it was obvious that all three were not meant to play together permanently. 

While Laettner’s comments didn’t directly lead to the trade according to the Timberwolves brass, there’s no doubt that the situation had an influence on the trade. Before he was traded, Laettner had appeared in 44 games and posted 18.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.9 SPG and 1.0 BPG in 34.5 MPG.

Some time ago, I was perusing the NYT’s book review section when I learned of a deceased literary critic named Harold Bloom. Some readers might be familiar with him, but I was not. Bloom developed a concept applicable to writing called “the anxiety of influence.” The Times briefly summarized it as “the way poetic genius has been both nurtured and threatened by the genius that preceded it.” Wiki sums it up as: “poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintain with precursor poets.”

Well, I’m not a poet and NBA basketball isn’t poetry or even literature. Nevertheless, reading about The Anxiety of Influence brought to mind a couple of thing that I find affect my own writing about the Wolves:

First is that it’s a million times harder to write if I’ve already read everybody else’s stuff, and you don’t have much else to add. Major aims are to be both authentic and original. If before you put the virtual pen on paper you already know how you’re failing in originality, it becomes that much more difficult to stay true to your feelings and beliefs.

Like most others seem to, I think the Wolves will win between 35 and 40 games this year. That’s a little above their Vegas over-under, which probably takes into consideration the “will KAT get traded midseason?” variable, along with the franchise’s almost-always-disappointing history. Like most others, I think the starting lineup has 3, maybe 4 locks: D’Lo, Ant, KAT, and probably Jaden. As has been the case since Rosas donated Dario to Phoenix, they don’t have a starting caliber 4 man, and Chris Finch will need to figure that one out. Like most others, I think the team will score points more easily than it will stop opponents from scoring points. Defense will be a challenge. Like most others, I loved the Patrick Beverley pick-up, but otherwise found the offseason uneventful and a little disappointing. At the outset of this season, I don’t have any scorching hot takes or insights that feel particularly unique. Barring a significant injury or a Ben Simmons trade, it feels like most people are on the same page right now when it comes to assessing the current state of the team.

The second dose of influence anxiety stems from the ways in which past Wolves experiences forever shape our perspective of what’s happening in the moment. Before each was fired, Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders were continuously compared to their predecessor, Tom Thibodeau. Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Love have each been compared to Kevin Garnett. It’ll be Anthony Edwards’s turn next. In his wonderful story about Ant for The Athletic, Jon Krawczynski dabbled in exactly that comp, specifically as it pertained to their mental approach and drive to improve as winning players. The past shapes the present, and for the Timberwolves franchise, that can lead us to some interesting places. That brings me back to the Laettner clips, the history of high-profile Timberwolves duos, and what I expect to steer the direction of the team’s future.

What happens with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards as teammates?

There are two main angles to this: the basketball one, and the personalities one. For a future to realistically include both Ant and KAT, two things must happen: They’ve gotta win now, and it has to be in a way that satisfies Towns’s ego.

On winning:

A 38-44 season won’t be good enough. That’ll mean another absence from the playoffs — 6 out of 7 for KAT, and 4 in a row since Jimmy left. It might also mean another All-Star snub, which would be 3 in a row. What’s the magic number for “good enough?” I’m not sure. 45 wins seems like a threshold.

I wrote last year about trading Towns and I wrote recently about Rosas’s primary failure as Wolves POBO: he thought he could blow up the roster he inherited without losing the star player in the #process. When a player of KAT’s stature starts a downward reputational slide as he’s ostensibly entering his prime, the odds of a break-up inch closer and closer to [100 emoji] percent. At this point this seems less controversial than when I first wrote about it: If they don’t win now, it’s over with Towns. When asked about KAT’s potential unhappiness with more losing in his interview with Britt Robson, Finch himself answered, “And if that is the case, then you have talent [to trade with] and you can pivot.”

For any chance of an Ant & KAT Era of Wolves basketball having any lasting memories, they gotta win and they gotta win now. If not, there will be trades and this concept will never get off the ground.

On ego:

A “cross this bridge when we come to it” issue, no doubt. But whatever, let’s humor ourselves. Let’s say the Wolves are the pleasant surprise of this year’s NBA. The stars align, the offense is top notch, the defense is amazingly average, they win 50 games or even 46.

What exactly does that look like? (Leave Ben Simmons out of this – no cheating.)

History says it would involve KAT spending less energy on scoring and more energy on defense. That’s at least what happened in 2017-18 when Thibs and Jimmy took over, the team won way more than it lost, and KAT made his only All-NBA appearance.

Towns is an offensive-minded and offensively-gifted player who plays the position that’s least important on offense and most important on defense. When they moved on from Thibs, Towns relished the opportunity to explain how much better things were going to be, shackled no longer on offense.

“I think I’ve been held back to 40 percent of my talent…It’s going to be fun to be able to tap into a little more with Ryan Saunders at the helm. I’m going to have a lot of fun being able to play more freely and be able to do things I’ve been doing my whole life that I’ve been held back from doing in the NBA so far.”

That quote aged about as well as “Bahamas was not a joke.” While he did up his scoring under Saunders, it was in a pretty pathetic state of affairs, going 19-45 and 23-49 in the two seasons that followed the “40 percent” line.

Here’s the possible dilemma in all of this. If the Wolves are going to win this season, it will be due to a big leap made by Ant into superstardom, and that is going to involve him running the show on offense and racking up numbers. With Ant carrying the offense, KAT will have more energy available on defense. He will probably spend more time at the top of the key as a floor spacer, which will help him be the first one back in transition. He’ll embrace the central duty of a winning NBA center, protecting the basket and quarterbacking the defense.

Of course in this hopeful hypothetical, Towns would receive all sorts of accolades and praise. If the Wolves win 50 games and he averages a mere 21 or 22 points per game, KAT would be both All-Star and All-NBA, as he was in ’17-18. The comparisons to Jokic and Embiid would begin anew. He’d get that validation.

The history with Thibs and Jimmy, and the available evidence before and after it, just cast a lot of doubt on the idea that Towns knows any of this to be true. His idea of accountability has always been to score the most points and then tell the press that all the blame falls on his shoulders, when nobody (very much including KAT) believes that to be true. At Media Day this year, he more or less bragged about how humble of a leader he is, without any apparent recognition of the irony there. What might one of his role-player teammates of these losing seasons — a Josh Okogie, perhaps — think when listening to the star player explain how he defers all the credit to everybody else and takes all the blame. Yikes.

The personality contrast with Edwards is stark. Both will frequently say silly things, but only one of them is doing it on purpose for its intended effect. If the Wolves win more games and Edwards is doing more and more of the stuff that KAT would like to be doing — scoring — is that a scenario that feels realistic or sustainable, knowing what we know about the personalities involved? Towns has been fawned over by Wolves fans and leadership more than any player since KG. Is he prepared to take a backseat?

I don’t know. I just know that hope is a prerequisite to enjoying this experience, so we should allow ourselves to wonder what winning might look like. I don’t envision anything here that resembles the Laettner Locker Room, but there are reasonable questions to ask about how these unique personalities will or will not mesh.

On Wednesday night against the Rockers, we’ll begin to get our answers.


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Recapping Rosas

The news that Gersson Rosas was fired came as a complete shock. No matter what anyone says, there was ZERO indication that the Wolves might can their POBO with less than a week to go before training camp. Sure, some assistant coaches were leaving at questionable times, and there were some rumblings about tension within the front office. But the Numero Uno Timberwolves Plotline of the last several weeks has been Ben Simmons, and whether Gersson Rosas will be able to pry him away from his old boss Daryl Morey, as the Philly situations further deteriorates.

Nothing about Rosas losing his job before the trade could happen.

By now, Wolves fans understand the two basic parts of the story: the background front office tension stuff, and the inappropriate office relationship stuff. Jon Krawczynski, as always, delivered the full story Wednesday night for The Athletic.

Hired two years ago to replace Tom Thibodeau as the Timberwolves president of basketball operations, Rosas’s authority over the franchise has has always seemed near-complete. (Eds note: Well, with the exception of the initial head-coaching hiring, which I maintain was Glen Taylor’s work.) Whether it was hiring front office and assistant coaching staff, making trades, taking Taylor’s payroll over the luxury tax in a losing season, acquiring D’Angelo Russell at substantial draft-pick cost, firing and hiring the head coach on the same midseason evening, or going full-steam into the public Ben Simmons trade rumors, Rosas was always the man in charge. There was no evidence in the public domain that would prepare us for even the remote possibility that he’d be canned, less than a week before the break of training camp.

But, these are the Timberwolves, and surprise is the norm. Whatever is supposed to happen, the other thing is usually the safer bet. Rosas is now gone, and we all wonder what’s next. But this event itself requires some proper digestion before moving onto that.

For what should Gersson Rosas, Timberwolves POBO, be remembered?

Let’s begin most recently and most generously. The positive side of the Rosas Legacy Ledger includes the 2020 Draft, when he acquired Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, each of whom outperformed expectations in their rookie campaigns. He also drafted Leandro Bolmaro, who arrives this season with some buzz. These young players form the reasonable basis for hope of a brighter future — even if it still might take a while. Rosas deserves credit for getting them.

He also hired Chris Finch, and so far/so good on that one. Low threshold as it was, Finch outperformed his predecessor after grabbing the reigns midseason without any familiarity with the Timberwolves or their players. Finch’s no-bullshit personality is refreshing, and seems in step with Ant’s. Rosas entered a uniquely Timberwolvesian dilemma with the Ryan Saunders baggage. Was it possible for him to get hired without keeping Ryan on as coach? Maybe, maybe not — my best guess is that had he signaled to Glen Taylor in interviews that he would hire a different coach, his chances of getting the POBO job would’ve gone down, even if not totally eliminated. It took him a season and a half to wrangle out of the mess, but he was able to eventually hire someone who seems qualified and ready to succeed as an NBA head coach. Kudos for that.

The negatives outweigh the positives, however, and it isn’t particularly close at this point.

Least tangible, and therefore most susceptible to argument over its actual importance, is the culture that was molded in Rosas’s image. Even if the Summer 2019 Anti Thibs Campaign was your cup of tea, it should not have taken long to sense that something wasn’t quite right about the new POBO and the words that would come out of his mouth.

He lost his benefit of the doubt with me when he so adamantly endorsed Saunders as the absolute best candidate for the job. Like: there were ways to massage that question where we know what you can and cannot say — how about, “You know, Ryan and I have a relationship and I have great respect for his coaching mind, and I really thought his familiarity with this group was an asset that outweighed the potential benefits of hiring someone from the outside.”

No no. With Rosas, everything was big and bold, laid on thick. Ryan was the BEST candidate for the job. Whether it was Juwan Howard or David Vanterpool or even if Gregg Popovich signaled a desire to move north to end his career, none had stronger credentials than Ryan. Either Rosas was being honest and stupid, or straight-up lying to us. Which is worse? For me, it didn’t really matter, I guess, even if I think I know the answer.

It went on from there. There was the incessant preaching of the Timberwolves being a “family,” while almost every player was out there dangling on the trade block. It took Rosas half a season to rid himself of 90% of the original “Bahamas” crew. A pro-sports executive being transactional in nature is fine, but maybe just cut the bullshit already. And why was he socializing with these guys to begin with? That part always seemed a little off to me, but maybe I misunderstand the business.

No two personalities are the same, and not everyone must speak with the blunt-force candidness of a Charles Barkley. The late Flip Saunders, in my experience around him for one season, was a good example of someone whose words may not always have been true if taken literally, but his tone conveyed what he meant, often in a friendly or even entertaining way. With Rosas, if you were paying attention (note: not blinded by Anti Thibs Euphoria), you soon detected things were a bit shadier. And for an organization professing such obsession with top-to-bottom culture, such disingenuous vibes raining from the top could not have been a good thing.

A final thing that always bugged me about the Rosas Culture: the team’s constant, public celebration of all the hard work it was supposedly doing. The videos of offseason workouts or drills in practice, the photos of Rosas on the damn telephone during the draft in which he didn’t actually own any picks. (FFS.) Let somebody else describe that background stuff for you (like Thibs does!) — it’s more convincing, especially when the game results actually validate the preparation.

Okay, now more tangibly. A lot of the basketball stuff was bad, too.

I’ll start with a caveat to this, of sorts. Actually, I’ll just paste in some more tweets on the subject — my Twitter-to-Blogging ratio has been way off for a while now, so bear with me while I recycle my own takes:

Rosas did enter a somewhat unique situation here. Low morale and a deep desire for change were not neatly aligned with the roster situation. His team had legitimate talent, some of it still young and improving. He also possessed all of his future first round picks, which is the main “flexibility” currency that exists in the league today. But, to be fair to Rosas, a couple of things were also apparent: (1) without Jimmy Butler, the team no longer had a championship upside, as presently constructed; and (2) they were carrying some large Kahntracts. And, I suppose, (3) It is natural and understandable for a new POBO to want to build the team in his or her own image.

This is to say that Rosas was not handed a blank canvass with unlimited possibilities.

But the job is to work with what you’ve got — within reality — not with what you wish you had.

Rosas’s primary asset was Karl-Anthony Towns, set to begin his 5th NBA season. Towns was one of the more heralded young players in recent league history, a player whose reputational arc and self-consciousness needed to factor into the team’s decision-making. Towns had been unanimous rookie of the year, the two-time “player most GMs would choose first to build around,” and all that. By his third season he was All-NBA and in the playoffs. And Rosas was taking over after KAT’s first real adversity, faced with the question of whether and to what extent he could retool the roster while keeping the ship sailing on the Towns Timeline.

I think it’s clear by now that… well, let’s just paste in more tweets on the subject:

Instead of tinkering with this or that, Rosas moved Karl Towns into a fallout shelter before dropping a nuclear bomb on Tom Thibodeau’s roster. Dario Saric: Donated to Phoenix for the exciting opportunity to draft Jarrett Culver with the 6th pick, rather than somebody like Tyler Herro or Cameron Johnson with the 11th. Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose? Bye, go play for Thibs again instead. RoCo, I don’t care how close you’ve become to Towns or that you play defense — you’re outta here. Tyus Jones, everybody likes you, but you cost too much. Go help the Grizzlies win, we’re not trying to do that here.

In place of these Serious NBA Players were guys who either weren’t drafted, or maybe shouldn’t have been drafted.

Whether by design or negligence, the Rosas roster moves amounted to a “half measure.” I’ll allow Mike Ehrmantraut to explain what can happen with half measures.

Inheriting a 5th year Karl Towns with a declining-for-the-first-time-ever reputation, he really had 1 of 2 options: (1) make the team better; or (2) start from scratch. Instead, by going the half measure and wanting to have his cake and eat it too, he proceeded to waste precious entire seasons (plural) from his best player’s prime.

And I haven’t even gotten to the D’Lo trade yet!

Another half measure of epic proportions.

Rosas paid a large premium to swap Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell: a barely-protected first round pick in the much-anticipated 2021 NBA Draft. Clearly, a move such as this one would signal that he and the organization were now prepared to move forward on some serious #winning. They’d probably acquire a few additional veteran role players to round out a rotation that could credibly vie for a playoff berth. At minimum, they’d add a real power forward, one would think. After all, nobody sends out first round picks while they’re tanking…


Well, it turns out Gersson Rosas does, and the cost has been immense. Last year’s team won 23 and lost 49, surrendered the 7th overall pick, Jonathan Kuminga, to our good friends in Golden State, and even now is projected by Las Vegas to win something like 33 games. The chatter about a KAT trade on the horizon is picking up predictable steam. If they don’t somehow acquire Ben Simmons, a full rebuild, with And & Jaden, and without Towns & Russell, seems all but inevitable. That could be okay, in time, but if the intentional roster moves were going to steer it this way, there should never have been the needless waste of KAT’s multiple prime seasons, and especially not a precious lottery pick in the middle of all the carnage.

It’s easy to slide into hyperbole when discussing how bad a Wolves president was. Many did it with Thibs. I’m not trying to do it here with Rosas. But he inherited a team whose best player was young and under long-term contract, and he leaves it in worse shape than he found it, by preseason over/under standards. Rosas wanted to make a splash with D’Angelo Russell, but he never gave his new “core” a chance at realistic success. He also just plain overrated D’Lo. His best moves, ironically enough, were his most recent, and we’ll never know how he would’ve navigated the parallel terrains of KAT’s uncertain future in Minneapolis and Ben Simmons’s in Philly. My best prediction was what it still is: that we’re headed toward a full rebuild around Ant and whomever else. Hopefully we’ll at least have a clearer sense of what the plan is.

No more half measures.


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A Few of My Favorite Things: The Volume Scorers Edition

J.R. Rider

Coronavirus lockdown has taken us from a state of “I’m addicted to my iPhone and frenetic news cycles” to “I haven’t seen NBA basketball in two-and-a-half months and ‘I can haz NBA classic games?’” In the absence of the present-day NBA, we’ve been taking a deeper look at the past. At risk of heresy–and as much as I wish COVID-19 hadn’t forced the league to suspend the season–I can say that I’ve enjoyed the looks back. While the ESPN documentary The Last Dance, on Michael Jordan and the Bulls, captured the most attention, the Timberwolves have also had an interesting history, replete with bumbles, stumbles, heroes, villains, and other sundry characters. The time off from normalcy has forged some kind of interest in revisiting the Wolves’ weird history and some of the team’s most-interesting characters. 

I’ve been watching the Timberwolves obsessively since the team tipped off its first game on day one of the 1989-90 season ‘til the novel coronavirus put the team out of its misery in March. Since then, I’ve been reading and thinking about how to synthesize 30-plus years of Wolves watching from my own selfish fan’s perspective. Not scientifically, but in light of the oddities and things I’ve found the most interesting in my mind’s own catalog. Hopefully my fever dreams and ramblings will amuse you also. 

Be forewarned: lots of opinions and takes will follow. No, you won’t agree with all of them. But that isn’t the point. Some might fly over your head. Others might go under-the-radar as extreme Wolves-geek esoterica. Some might seem silly. It’s free content, so what do you have to lose? Buyer beware.

Volume Scorers

This edition of A Few of My Favorite Things discusses Wolves players whom I consider to belong to one important category of my favorite things–volume scorers. After all of you efficiency nerds stop rolling your eyes and fidgeting with your TI-86s, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride. No, this listicle won’t take you to the hallowed nirvana of hoops efficiency, but it might jog some memories you can jam to while you await the return of real, live, basketball.

So, here is the short list of *my*–not necessarily your–favorite volume-scorers who donned a Wolves uniform, along with a few random stats that jumped out at me in revisiting their pages and some video for those of you who are visual learners or simply appreciate the craft.

Jamal Crawford: J-Crossover had the best handle of anyone who made the list; yes, that means something to me. Brought in by Tom Thibodeau before the 2017-18 season, Crawford played just one season in Minnesota. While wasn’t even a starter, he was the guy who came off the bench to provide buckets. Did he play defense? No. Were his peripheral stats good? Nope. Again, that isn’t the point. This is about volume scoring and the art therein as seen through one observer’s eyes. Aside from handling the ball better than you everyone, volume-scoring is J-Crossover’s basketball mantra. Crawford, who had not retired but remained unsigned when the 2019-20 season was suspended, is probably in a gym somewhere in the Seattle area embarrassing people and teaching his craft to the next generation of Pacific coast ballers. One can rest assured that J-Crossover is *still* a fierce bucket-getter and will be until he’s a very old man. (Editor’s note: Sort of like a real-life version of Uncle Drew, perhaps, with far less grey hair.) Crawford deserves remembrance from Wolves fans for bringing that energy to ‘Sota for a year. Here’s a reminder of some things J-Craw did in his lone season in ‘Sota:

  • James “Hollywood” Robinson: There’s a very special spot in my heart for James Hollywood Robinson, who was one of the Timberwolves’ first–and most brashly unrepentant–volume scorers. He also had the coolest nickname of anyone on this list whose literal nickname isn’t “Ricky Buckets.” Robinson did two stints in Minnesota, in 1996-97 and again 1998-99. Hollywood had his limitations: he never started full-time or average double-figures. In fact, Robinson shot at a sub-40% clip for his career. But whatever he lacked in substance, he made up in style, specializing in high degree of difficulty shots for which a fan can forgive a showman on a below-average team. And he made some mediocreish Wolves teams at least a little bit more fun to watch. At 6’2’’, Robinson was an unconventional shooting guard before the “combo guard” had really come back into vogue in the early 2000s. He made the Star Tribune’s “Moments of Glory” series for scoring 23 points in 9:35 minutes in the fourth quarter of a game he tilted from a blowout loss to…well, it ended as a 12-point loss to the Terrell Brandon-led Cavs. Repeat with me: 23 points in 10 minutes. That projects out to 110 points per 48. Wilt Chamberlain, eat your heart out. A final thing about Hollywood that should be enough by itself to vouch for his elite showmanship: someone (Editor’s note: Maybe him?) uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “Greatest Dunk Yell Ever.” (Editor’s note: Robinson also has some ridiculously cool college highlights from his time at Alabama, if you’re feeling adventurous.) Check it out.
  • Rashad McCants: Rashad McCants played for some truly putrid Wolves teams: in his four seasons in Minnesota, spanning from a relatively small role on the Transition to The Lottery 2005-06 squad to the miserable teams of subsequent seasons, until the Wolves traded him midseason to the Kings in 2008-09. While McCants was in town, the Wolves never won more than 33 games. McCants seemed to revel in the role of “volume-scorer-on-a-bad-team.” Did McCants actively make the team worse? Maybe, maybe not. It’s complicated. Okay, okay: there’s reason to suspect he did: in his rookie season–the 33-win-season–he had the likes of KG and the late, great Eddie Griffin on the roster alongside him. By the end, McCants was surrounded by this group, which was so bad collectively it is difficult to pinpoint the blame. (Editor’s note: I appreciate Brian Cardinal and Craig Smith as much as anyone, but rookie K-Love wasn’t like current K-Love and the team’s pieces didn’t fit together well.)

But Shaddy McCants had a knack for getting buckets, with a tough-to-defend rocker step, a well-developed post game, and a soft jump shot at his disposal. At 6’4’’, McCants looked a bit undersized for a shooting guard, but this bag of tricks enabled him to consistently put buckets on the heads of bigger defenders. After a foray into acting, McCants washed out of the league after a brief sojourn in Sacramento and was last seen carrying the Trilogy, of Ice Cube’s Big3 league, to the league’s inaugural championship in 2017. Here’s a video of McCants’ glory days in Minnesota.

  • Anthony Peeler: AP came to the Wolves after stops with the Lakers and Grizzlies. He was perhaps not as much of a chucker as the others in my top-5, and he played a valuable role with some solid KG-led Wolves squads between 1997-98 and 2002-03. Peeler wasn’t a big scorer–he didn’t average double-figures in his overall tenure with the Wolves–but Peeler’s game and gravitas strongly indicated a volume-scorer’s mentality, which is what initially fetched my attention while he was a college star at Missouri in the ‘90s. Also, the music in this highlight mix:
  • Ricky “Buckets” Davis: Ricky “Buckets” Davis, aka “Grits N Gravy,” aka “Slick Rick,” was volume-everything. Davis, who played at Iowa (!), was primarily a gunner, and he infamously demonstrated how much of a statshound he was when he took and intentionally missed a buzzer beater at the opposing team’s hoop so he could scoop up a cheap rebound needed to consummate a meaningless triple-double he ended up notching that night. In reality, Davis was actually a surprisingly good–if only an occasionally willing—passer. That said, few among Ricky’s sizable fanbase were tuning in to see him getting nifty assists. They were there for the buckets.
  • J.R. Rider: Last but not least is my favorite volume-scorer in Wolves history, Isaiah “J.R.” Rider. What separated J.R. from the rest is that, with the exception of Crawford, he was not only a volume scorer, he was also a really competent NBA player. The kind that can help a good team while doing his thing. See, most volume scorers are just niche guys–sometimes, they’re derisively called ”professional scorers.” You’ve seen the type, and you know it when you see it. They’re skilled craftsmen at the art of getting buckets. But they can’t offer the full suite of tools one needs to stand out in the league. Many, like Robinson and McCants, are undersized; some are unathletic; others just can’t defend anybody. These are players who might make a useful 6th man on a decent team. These abilities are what separates Rider, who started his turbulent nine-year career in Minnesota, and went on to lead some solid Portland teams in scoring en route to a playoff berth in each season he played there. The 1997-98 Trailblazers, for example, were a solid 46-36, and Rider led the team in scoring at 19.7 points per game (five points more than their second-leading scorer, Rasheed Wallace). To be sure, in the ‘90s the NBA wasn’t the high-scoring league it is now. But Rider still filled it up. You can check his resume: J.R. led the NCAA in scoring his junior year at UNLV before being drafted fifth overall by the Wolves before the 1993-94 season. In his three seasons in Minnesota, he either led or was tied for the team’s highest average ppg each year while winning a memorable dunk contest as well–a further testament to the kind of flair and showmanship that radiated from his body whenever he stepped on the court. 

Conclusion: Honorable Mentions

These are some other guys I thought about adding to the list but ultimately left off for various reasons. Troy Hudson probably deserved more love in this article, but c’est la vie. Rest assured, he could get buckets.

  • Shabazz Muhammad
  • Tony Campbell
  • Troy Hudson
  • Gerald Glass

Till next time.

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Notes on a Media Day

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 5.29.43 PM

The Wolves hosted Media Day on Monday, marking the beginning of the 2019-20 season.  Aside from the visual experience of seeing each player — many new faces among them — the main event is the line of press conferences.  They began with a joint conference from #RosasAndRyan, and then ticked off every one of the guys on the preseason roster.

Here are a few simple observations of this writer: Continue reading

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast (ep. 17): The Preseason Edition

jmp 004 Timberwolves Media Day

Commentary on the Minnesota Timberwolves and the National Basketball Association.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 16

In which we discuss the Timberwolves near the season’s end point, player development, potential draft prospects, and more.

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 15

Ricky Rubio has been the subject of recent trade rumors

Ricky Rubio has been the subject of recent trade rumors

In which we discuss the Timberwolves at the midseason point, Ricky Rubio trade rumors, how the Wolves’ young core compares to others, and potential 2017 draft prospects.

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In case you missed it, we are now writing for A Wolf Among Wolves. (

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INBOX: Over/Unders, Pek, KG

Nikola Pekovic’s injuries could force him to sit on the Wolves bench for the entire 2016-17 season

Nikola Pekovic’s injuries could force him to sit on the Wolves bench for the entire 2016-17 season

Timberwolves training camp opens on Monday with their annual Media Day. Once the players and coaches are on the floor, doing actual basketball stuff, we’ll be better equipped to carry on substantive Wolves discussion. Meanwhile, there are a couple of team issues and one gambling-related Wolves item to kick around in these final dog days of NBA offseason. 


Andy G: Vegas released its NBA over/unders. That’s always a fun and interesting wrinkle to the “gearing up for the season” #process.

Let’s cut to the chase:

The gamblers set the Wolves at 41.5 wins.

They won 29 last season.

They won 15 the season before that.

Is picking 42 or more wins a crazy proposition?

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INBOX: Thoughts on Kris Dunn’s Upcoming Rookie Season


Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn


Kris Dunn’s rookie peers recently selected him as “most likely to win NBA Rookie of the Year.” Yes, that sounds a lot like a high-school yearbook superlative.

Believe it or not, the superlatives do not always reveal the truth: the 2015-16 equivalent was 76ers big man Jahlil Okafor, who had all kinds of times. But he was not nearly as good as Karl Towns.

So, what have we got here? Much ado about nothing? Or does Dunn’s selection (probably) portend special things for his career? It’s early, but it’s the internet. So why not discuss? We discuss some initial thoughts on Kris Dunn below the fold.

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Tyus Jones: The 1 & Done Who Wasn’t?


A few years ago, I heard about a conversation that Rick Pitino had about local prep star, Tyus Jones. I was one layer of hearsay removed from it, and it’s been a few years, but here is the general gist of what Pitino apparently said about the Apple Valley prospect:

“Tyus Jones is not a ‘one-and-done.’ He thinks he’s a one-and-done, but he is not a one-and-done.”

It wasn’t an earth-shattering assessment of Tyus, if you had seen what he looked like — scrawny and maybe not even six-feet tall — but I found the phrasing sort of interesting, especially from somebody in Pitino’s position. Pitino probably recruited Jones to play for him at Louisville, and in that process he came away thinking that the kid was more confident about his pro prospects than he should have been. (Also, Pitino’s son Richard had recently taken over the University of Minnesota coaching job, and he was definitely trying to recruit Jones. I’m sure father and son compared notes.) Despite his high hopes for himself, thought Pitino, Jones was not going to be ready for the NBA within nine months of stepping foot on whatever campus he chose. (Duke, as it turned out.)

A few years later, was Pitino right or wrong?

I mean, Tyus was, literally, a one-and-done. He went to Duke, won a national championship (and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors) and was selected by Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.

In that respect, Pitino was wrong.

But last year as an NBA rookie, in terms of Tyus’s actual production and overall readiness as an NBA player, Pitino’s assessment was probably validated too. Tyus was overwhelmed in many of his rookie-year stints on the floor. Sam Mitchell remained loyal to the unexpectedly-fallen Flip Saunders and committed to development over “win now” strategies. He played youngsters like Jones the minutes they needed to learn on the job. But in Tyus’s case more than anyone else’s, there was question of whether those minutes were constructive or discouraging.

Jones shot a miserable 35.9 percent from the field. Worse than his shooting percentage was the drop-off in Timberwolves quality of play when Jones manned the point instead of Ricky Rubio. With Rubio at the helm they actually outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, With Tyus, they were outscored by a whopping 10.0 per 100. That is like dropping from a 7 or 8 seed level of play down to the worst team in the entire league.

But watching Jones, three things stood out that gave some hope that his future might still be bright, even if it would require patience.

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KAT the 5, or KAT the Eventual 5?


Free agency begins tomorrow, and the Timberwolves will be looking to add a big man. While NBA positions are less rigid than they used to be, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Wolves will try to acquire a “true center.” I have two basic reasons for expecting this:

  1. I believe Tom Thibodeau wants to start winning right away; not in a year or three.
  2. Last season, the Wolves were absolutely destroyed on the interior whenever the 7’1″ Kevin Garnett was unable to play. Which was most of the time.

Karl-Anthony Towns has a big future ahead of him (Captain Obvious) and most of that future will probably involve him playing the center position. The sorts of matchup nightmares that he will present at that position are probably the biggest reason Thibodeau took this job in the first place.

But last year, he was not able to defend very well as a five, and — again, if they are trying to win right away — the Wolves will probably sign a full-sized big man to at least insure themselves against certain types of matchups when KAT would be better off at the four spot.

In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:

  • 107.1. This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
  • 108.8. This was their D-rating without Garnett. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
  • 96.4. Their D-rating WITH Garnett playing. Instead of playing league-worst level defense, with a talented seven footer out there, the Wolves defended slightly better than the historically-great San Antonio Spurs.

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The Rubio Referendum

This was me, a week ago, after reading some mocks and predictions that had the Wolves selecting either a point guard (Kris Dunn) or a shooting guard (Jamal Murray) with the fifth pick in the draft:

Right around the time that the Wolves selection of Dunn was announced on Thursday night, Woj crystallized my earlier sentiment with this:

These intertwined pieces of important Timberwolves information hit us like a 1-2 punch; leaving Timberwolves Nation collectively… well, perhaps a little bit “punch drunk,” in the 48 hours that followed. On Twitter, I think I pretty much observed the gamut of “takes.”

“This doesn’t necessarily mean Rubio is gone. Maybe they can play together.”

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